A new Tel Aviv University study identified genes that protect cells from Zika viral infection.

The research, led by Dr. Ella H. Sklan of TAU’s Sackler School of Medicine, was published in the Journal of Virology and is one step toward the development of a treatment for Zika and other viral infections.

The Zika virus has affected more than 60 million people, mostly in South America. It has potentially devastating consequences for pregnant women and their unborn children. There is currently no vaccine or specific treatment for the virus.

The Israeli study used CRISPR activation, a modification of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique that enables the expression of specific genes in their original DNA locations.

“CRISPR activation can be used to identify genes protecting against viral infection,” Sklan said. “We used this adapted system to activate every gene in the genome in cultured cells. We then infected the cells with the Zika virus. While most cells die following the infection, some survived due to the over-expression of some protective genes.”

Next-generation sequencing and bioinformatic analysis helped Sklan’s lab identify genes that enabled survival, especially one called IFI6 already known for its role vis-à-vis other viruses.

“IFI6 showed high levels of protection against the Zika virus both by protecting cells from infection and by preventing cell death,” Sklan reported.

With Dr. Nabila Jabrane-Ferrat of the French National Center for Scientific Research, Sklan moved the study of the identified genes into Zika-infected human placenta tissue following infection, and the reaction indicated they might play a protective role in this tissue as well.

Understanding the mechanism of how IF16 protects against Zika is the next goal toward potentially developing a novel antiviral therapy to fight the Zika virus or related infections, Sklan said.

Research for the study was conducted by Dr. Anna Dukhovny of TAU’s Sackler School of Medicine, and bioinformatics analysis conducted by Kevin Lamkiewicz of Friedrich Schiller University. Part of the study was conducted during Dr. Sklan’s sabbatical in Prof. Jae Jung’s lab at the University of Southern California.