Zika has terrified expectant mothers since 2015, but one researcher is using brain stem cells to find a drug to treat those who have been infected.
The mosquito-borne illness can cause birth defects and may be fatal to newborn babies.
Professor Alysson Muotri runs a stem cell lab at University of California San Diego. There, he searched for a virus that is biologically similar to Zika. In 2016, he succeeded.
"When we aligned the genome, or the genetic material, from the Hepatitis C virus and the Zika virus, we noticed that they are from the same family and they share a region that is very similar between these two," Muotri said.
The similarity lies in the region the viruses use to replicate. Muotri tested Sofosbuvir, a drug used to treat Hepatitis C, on brain stem cell models that showed the damage done to brain cells by Zika.
In those models, the Hepatitis C drug prevented Zika from killing brain cells. Animal trials yielded similar results.
"The moms got very clean from the virus" Muori said of the trial results. "There is no circulating virus in the body, and as a consequence, the fetuses are protected."
Because most Zika research is focused on developing a vaccine, Dr. Miguel Del Campo, who has worked with Zika patients since 2015, said he is encouraged by the possibility of treatment.
"If we can prevent infection or we can decrease the magnitude of the consequences in the baby's brain, that'll be great," Del Campo said.
Muotri said that although it's early, he's hopeful about the possibility of treatment.
"The drug seems to work really nice, and it is a drug that is already available. So encourage us to move on into clinical trials," Muotri said.
The CDC still has travel warnings in place for pregnant women that include most of the Caribbean islands and parts of Mexico. A complete list can be found at cdc.gov.
Healthbeat: Potential Zika treatment in animal trials