With each new emerging infectious disease threat, there’s generally a background misguided sense that scientists at our top research institutions are hard at work and will soon present us with a miraculous magic bullet to stamp out this challenge to our collective health. While researchers are indeed looking to develop a pharmaceutical-based therapeutic strategy for Zika, it may be many years until such a drug is finally developed, tested, and ultimately cleared for general use.
Not to be deterred, a group of researchers at the University of Texas went about responding to this challenge by evaluating how the Zika infection might respond to drugs that are already FDA-approved to treat other illnesses or diseases. They reasoned that, if such a drug could be identified, doctors could then prescribe it under the premise of off-label application. Drugs are frequently used by physicians and other healthcare providers for reasons other than those for which they were developed. For example, various blood pressure medications are often used to help patients reduce the frequency of their migraine headaches. A handful of epilepsy drugs are often helpful for people with various pain problems like fibromyalgia.
The researchers evaluated 774 FDA-approved drugs to determine their anti-Zika virus activity in liver tumor cells derived from humans. Drugs that showed anti-Zika activity were then screened in other cells, including human amnion cells. These are cells derived from the amnion, the membrane that surrounds and protects the developing human embryo. In light of the brain development issues associated with Zika infection during pregnancy, this part of the experiment certainly could have important implications.
Surprisingly, the researchers found that the common antidepressant sertraline, perhaps better known by its trade name, Zoloft, had remarkable activity in terms of reducing the ability of the Zika virus to infect both the liver tumor as well as the amnion cells.
The authors stated:
The work presented here provides therapeutic possibilities to consider and test when confronted with (Zika virus) infection in pregnancy and in individuals with increased risk due to underlying medical conditions.
Clearly, it’s a long way from the laboratory in terms of what this study revealed and making a recommendation that sertraline could (or should) be used in the treatment or prevention of Zika. But nonetheless, the approach taken by these researchers, trying to leverage already existing and approved drugs, is creative and may well open the door for a solution for this challenging problem.
For now, the best bet seems to be to follow the recommendations of the Zika Foundation headed by Harvard microbiologist, Dr. Michael Callahan. I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Callahan, and his insights on combating Zika were certainly eye-opening.