DETROIT — Scientists with Wayne State University say they are the first to publish research to show the Zika virus can damage retina cells in the eyes, and in some cases cause blindness.
“The key message of the study is that indeed the Zika virus can cause damage,” said Dr. Ashok Kumar, microbiologist and assistant ophthalmology professor with Wayne State University School of Medicine at the Kresge Eye Institute.
Dr. Kumar led a team which launched research in July to publish their study in JCI Insight, the Journal of Clinical Investigation Feb. 23.
Using mice Dr. Kumar says the Zika virus can infect and cause lesions in retina cells, causing damage and in some cases cause blindness. Their research showed the Zika virus mostly killed cells specifically lining the blood-retinal barrier, the retinal endothelium, and retinal pigment epithelium.
“Zika virus can actually infect those cells, and we did … studies and we found it can replicate in those cell types and ultimately it kills those cells,” said Dr. Kumar.
Their study builds on existing research published May 2016 in the Journal of the American Medical Association Ophthalmology that linked the Zika virus to eye problems. Researchers showed that some infants born with congenital Zika infection and microcephaly-or significantly smaller head and underdeveloped brain-in the northeast state of Brazil, Bahia, they also had problems in their retinas, other organs, and some hearing loss.
“Pretty much the whole eye can be infected with the Zika virus,” said Dr. Gary Abrams, ophthalmology professor with Wayne State University School of Medicine at the Kresge Eye Institute, who assisted Dr. Kumar with the clinical aspect of this study.
Dr. Abrams says about one third of infants born with Zika will develop eye issues they have discovered, whereas 15 percent of adults with Zika will have some sort of ocular impact, but most do not get a retinal infection.
“This is a virus that’s fairly pervasive: once the infection occurs it can be pretty much all over the body, including in the eyes, in the tears, and elsewhere,” said Dr. Abrams.
Currently, Dr. Kumar says they are continuing research in hopes of developing methods to track and treat Zika infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no known treatment at this time.
“There are so many questions we don’t know,” said Dr. Kumar. “First thing is: how does the virus replicate? How long is it going to replicate? And what will be the visual outcome.”
“The big question really is that Zika virus was discovered in 1947, so it’s about 70 years, and why suddenly is it becoming so prevalent?”