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Geelong neuro-engineers have gone to the source for a possible cure of a virus leaving babies with shrunken heads, Deakin University has announced.
The scientists were investigating the brains of mosquitoes at Waurn Ponds to “crack the code” for a viable Zika vaccine.
The disease has ravaged communities in South America and reached Australia’s Papua New Guinea doorstep, with authorities identifying mosquitoes as the source of infection.
Infected pregnant women have subsequent babies with underdeveloped brains and debilitating neurological disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Deakin’s research discovered that Zika-infected mosquitoes were “naturally resistant to its most-debilitating effects”, the university said.
“While other groups have looked into how the virus reproduces in mammals, we traced the infection back to its source in mosquitoes, who are one of the main culprits of spreading the disease,” said lead researcher Associate Professor Asim Bhatti.
“We’re the first ones in the world to demonstrate this mosquito brain mechanism in vitro, with a microelectrodes array that essentially puts mosquito brain cells on a chip that we can then use to track activity.”
The work was the result of a collaborative effort by researchers including Deakin PhD student Julie Gaburro and the CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory’s Dr Jean-Bernard Duchemin and Dr Prasad Paradkar.
Prof Bhatti said the research showed that mosquitos’ unique way of fighting off Zika infection was “much more effective than mammals’”.
“Zika attacks the brain more than anything else, so if we can understand how this works, that’s the first step toward vaccination,” he said.
“While cells in infected mammals such as mice have been observed to die off due to Zika-induced overstimulation, the mosquito brain cells don’t die – they recover, allowing them to survive and continue fighting off the disease.”
Prof Bhatti’s research showed that mosquito cells fought through the potentially lethal stimulation in a way that actually made the insects more effective at spreading the virus.
“Mosquitoes infected with the virus show massive spikes in stimulation and changes to their behaviour,” he said.
“Their physical activity and flying increases and their behaviour is significantly changed to become more erratic and frenzied, like a rabid dog.
“The disease also affects their memory, flying trajectory and egg laying behaviour, and they’re attracted to different odours, meaning they could fly further and bite more people.”

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