Saguna Verma

A University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa team has been awarded $484,750 to discover how Zika can hide in men’s bodies long after they are infected, posing a risk to their sexual partners. With the newly awarded funding, Saguna Verma of the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) and her team are partnering with Wake Forest University to study how “gatekeeper” cells that protect sperm cells succumb easily to Zika virus infection.

“As many as 56 percent of men still had the Zika virus in their seminal fluid for months after the virus had cleared other body fluids,” said Verma, an associate professor in JABSOM‘s Department of Tropical Medicine, Microbiology and Pharmacology. “That suggests the ability of the Zika virus to enter into the testes to establish persistent infection.”

This finding is alarming because typically the testes, so vital in reproduction, enjoy immunity from other viral infections.

Using cells made to resemble the testes at Wake Forest, the research team hopes to find a way to prevent Zika from breaking through immune barriers that normally stop viruses from infecting male reproductive organs.

“I believe that the key to curing testicular infection of viruses will be to know how the testes loses its unique immune privilege position in the human body,” explained Verma. “It is only when we understand the complexities of the interaction between the testis and testes-tropic viruses that we will be able to develop strategies and therapies to prevent or clear the infection quickly.”

The new funding is from the National Institutes of Health and the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation.

For the more, go to the John A. Burns School of Medicine website.

—By Tina Shelton