TWiV 468: Zika by the slice

Amy Rosenfeld joins the TWiV team to talk about her career and her work on Zika virus neurotropism using embryonic mouse organotypic brain slice cultures.

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Zika virus blocks the neuron road

Written with Amy Rosenfeld, Ph.D.

By infecting organotypic brain slice cultures from embryonic mice, we have shown that Zika virus has always been neurotropic. The same culture system provides information on how Zika virus infection of the developing brain might lead to microcephaly.

The small heads observed in microcephalic children reflect a physically smaller brain – specifically, the neocortex is thinner than in a normal brain. The neocortex, only found in mammals, is the largest part of the cerebral cortex of the brain. It is composed of six distinct layers of neurons, which are established during embryonic development (illustrated below). First, glial cells originating from progenitor cells in the ventricular zone extend their processes throughout the cortex and anchor at the pia, the outer surface of the brain. These long fibers provide a scaffold on which neurons, produced from the same progenitor cells, migrate outwards to establish the six layers of the cortex. Movies have been made that show the migration of neurons on glial fibers, and they are amazing.

embryonic brain development

The glial fibers are visible as parallel tracks in our embryonic brain slice cultures stained with an antibody to vimentin, a protein component of the fibers (image below, left panel). When embryonic brain slice cultures were infected with Zika virus, the structure of the glial tracks was altered. Instead of parallel tracks, the fibers assumed a twisted morphology that would not allow neurons to travel from the ventricular zone to the developing neocortex (image below, right panel). Disruption of glial fibers was observed after infection with Zika viruses isolated from 1947 to 2016.

Zika fiber disruption

Image credit: Rosenfeld AB et al.

To determine if Zika virus-mediated disruption of glial fibers could impair neuronal migration, we isolated brains from embryonic mice as described above, but before virus infection, a plasmid encoding green fluorescent protein was injected into the ventricle. An electrical current was then applied to the brain to encourage uptake of the plasmid in neuronal progenitors lining the ventricle. The brains were then sliced, placed in culture, and infected with Zika virus.

Four days later, in the uninfected brain slices, green fluorescent neurons could be seen in the ventricular zone, and some of these had already migrated through the developing cortical plate to the pial surface. In brain slices infected with Zika virus, the migration of green neurons to the cortical plate was impaired, and the cells remained in the area where the plasmid was injected. This observation indicates that the disruption of glial fibers caused by Zika virus infection has caused fewer neurons to reach the cortical plate.

We think it is likely that Zika virus disruption of glial fibers during embryonic development contributes to microcephaly: if neurons cannot migrate to the pial surface, the neocortex will be thinner. Zika virus infection also inhibits the proliferation of progenitor cells that line the ventricular surface, which is likely a contributing factor to microcephaly. Other embryonic brain cells are infected with Zika virus, and these could play a role in microcephaly. Furthermore, there are other effects of Zika virus infection on the developing brain, including calcifications, hypoplasia (reduced cell density), lissencephaly (smooth brain), ventriculomegaly (enlarged ventricle), and brainstem dysfunction.

We are particularly interested in identifying the viral protein that disrupts the glial fibers in embryonic mouse brains. Once that protein is identified, it might be possible to understand the mechanisms by which the glial fibers are disrupted. Such information would not only lead to a better understanding of how Zika virus causes microcephaly, but should also provide a better understanding of how the brain develops.

Zika virus has always been neurotropic

Third trimester embryonic mouse brains

Written with Amy Rosenfeld, Ph.D.

Zika virus has been infecting humans since at least the 1950s (and probably earlier), but epidemics of infection have only been observed in the past ten years and congenital Zika syndrome in the last two. Two hypotheses emerged to explain this new pattern of disease: evolution of the virus, or random introduction into large, immunologically naive populations. Results from our laboratory show that one component of these disease patterns – neurotropism, the ability to infect cells of the nervous system – has always been a feature of Zika virus.

If evolution has selected for Zika viruses that cause epidemics and congenital neurological disease, there are many steps in the infection pathway that could be affected. Let’s focus on the ability of Zika virus infection during pregnancy to cause microcephaly. Mutations that affect multiple stages of infection might be responsible. These could include any or all of the following:

  • Mutations that increase viremia in the human host, increasing the likelihood that virus will be captured by a mosquito taking a blood meal.
  • Mutations that increase viral replication in the mosquito vector.
  • Mutations that increase the ability of the virus to cross the placenta.
  • Mutations that allow efficient replication in the fetus.
  • Mutations that promote virus entry of the nervous system (neuroinvasion).
  • Mutations that enhance replication in neural cells (neurotropism).

This list is by no means exhaustive. The point is that no small animal model is likely to capture all of these steps. For example, no mouse model of Zika virus infection has so far lead to the development of microcephalic offspring. Therefore testing whether any of the the mutations observed in different Zika virus isolates are responsible for new disease patterns is likely impossible.

We have chosen to look at the question of how Zika virus disease has changed by looking at a very specific part of the replication cycle: growth of the virus in fetal brain, specifically in organtypic brain slice cultures. Here’s how it works: we remove the developing embryos from pregnant mice during the first, second or third trimesters of development (see photo). The fetal brain is removed, sliced (slices are about 300 nm thick), are placed into culture medium. The slices live up to 8 days, during which time brain development continues. The Vallee laboratory here at Columbia has used a similar system utilizing rats to study the genetic basis of microcephaly.

Next, we infect the embryonic brain slices with different isolates of Zika virus from 1947 to 2016, from Africa, Asia, South America, and Puerto Rico. All of the isolates replicated in brain slice cultures from the first and second trimesters of development. These observations show that Zika virus has been neurotropic since at least 1947. Similar observations have been made with the 1947 isolate using human neurospheres, organoids, and fetal organotypic brain slice cultures.

The incidence of microcephaly is greatly reduced when mothers are infected during the third trimester of development. Consistent with this observation, we found that organotypic brain slice cultures from the third trimester of mouse development support the replication of only two of seven Zika virus isolates examined – the original 1947 isolate from Uganda, and 2016 isolate from Honduras. Furthermore, these viruses replicate in different cells of the third trimester embryonic brain compared with second trimester brain. We are interesting in identifying the changes in the virus responsible for these differences.

Our approach asks only whether different Zika virus isolates can infect brain cells when the virus is placed directly on these cells. We cannot make any conclusions about the ability of the virus to invade the brain from the blood (neuroinvasion), or any of the other steps in infection listed above.

Our experimental system also reveals how Zika virus infection of the developing brain might lead to microcephaly, a topic that we’ll explore next week.

TWiV 454: FGCU, Zika

Sharon Isern and Scott Michael return to TWiV for a Zika virus update, including their work on viral evolution and spread, and whether pre-existing immunity to dengue virus enhances pathogenesis.

 

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Does prior dengue virus infection exacerbate Zika virus disease?

Antibody dependent enhancementThe short answer to the question posed in the title of this blog is: we don’t know.

Why would we even consider that a prior dengue virus infection would increase the severity of a Zika virus infection? The first time you are infected with dengue virus, you are likely to have a mild disease involving fever and joint pain, from which you recover and develop immunity to the virus. However, there are four serotypes dengue virus, and infection with one serotype does not provide protection against infection with the other three. If you are later infected with a different dengue virus serotype, you may even experience more severe dengue disease involving hemorrhagic fever and shock syndrome.

The exacerbation of dengue virus disease has been documented in people. Upon infection with a different serotype, antibodies are produced against the previous dengue virus encountered. These antibodies bind the new dengue virus but cannot block infection. Dengue virus then enters and replicates in cells that it does not normally infect, such as macrophages. Entry occurs when Fc receptors on the cell surface bind antibody that is attached to virus particles (illustrated). The result is higher levels of virus replication and more severe disease. This phenomenon is called antibody-dependent enhancement, or ADE.

When Zika virus emerged in epidemic form, it was associated with microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, diseases that had not been previously known to be caused by infection with this virus. As Zika virus and dengue virus are closely related, because ADE was known to occur with dengue virus, and both viruses often co-circulated, it was proposed that antibodies to dengue virus might exacerbate Zika virus disease.

It has been clearly shown by several groups that antibodes to dengue virus can enhance Zika virus infection of cells in culture. Specifically, adding dengue virus antibodies to Zika virus allows it to infect cells that bear receptors for antibodies – called Fc receptors. Without Fc receptors, the Zika virus plus dengue antibodies cannot infect these cells. ADE in cultured cells has been reported by a number of groups; the first was discussed here when it appeared on bioRxiv.

The important question is whether antibodies to dengue virus enhance Zika virus disease in animals, and there the results are mixed. In one experiment, mice were injected with serum from people who had recovered from dengue virus infection, followed by challenge with Zika virus. These sera, which cause ADE of Zika virus in cultured cells, led to increased fever, viral loads, and death of mice.

These finding were not replicated in two independent studies conducted in rhesus macaques (paper one, paper two). In these experiments, the macaques were first infected with dengue virus, and shown to mount an antibody response to that virus. Over one year later the animals were infected with Zika virus (the long time interval was used because in humans dengue ADE is observed mainly with second infections 12 months or more after a primary infection). Both groups concluded that prior dengue virus immunity did not lead to more severe Zika virus disease.

Which animals are giving us the right answer, mice or monkeys? It should be noted that the mouse study utilized an immunodeficient strain lacking a key component of innate immunity. As the authors of paper one concluded, it’s probably not a good idea to use immune deficient mice to understand the pathogenesis of Zika virus infection of people.

When it comes to viral pathogenesis, we know that mice lie; but we also realize that monkeys exaggerate. Therefore we should be cautious in concluding from the studies on nonhuman primates that dengue virus antibodies do not enhance Zika virus pathogenesis.

The answer to the question of whether dengue antibodies cause Zika virus ADE will no doubt come from carefully designed epidemiological studies to determine if Zika virus pathogenesis differs depending on whether the host has been previously infected with dengue virus. Such studies have not yet been done*.

You might wonder about the significance of dengue virus antibodies enhancing infection of cells in culture with Zika virus. An answer is provided by the authors of paper one:

In vitro ADE assays using laboratory cell lines are notoriously promiscuoius and demonstrate no correlation with disease risk. For example, DENV-immune sera will enhance even the homotypic serotype responsible for a past infection in the serum is diluted to sub-neutralizing concentrations.

The conundrum of whether ADE is a contributor to Zika virus pathogeneis is an example of putting the cart before the horse. For dengue virus, we obtained clear evidence of ADE in people before experiments were done in animals. For Zika virus, we don’t have the epidemiological evidence in humans, and therefore interpreting the animals results are problematic.

*Update 8/12/17: A study has been published on Zika viremia and cytokine levels in patients previously infected with dengue virus. The authors find no evidence of ADE in patients with acute Zika virus infection who had previously been exposed to dengue virus. However the study might not have been sufficiently powered to detect ADE.

TWiV 432: Conjunction junction, what’s your function?

The TWiVites discuss Zika virus seroprevalence in wild monkeys, Zika virus mRNA vaccines, and a gamete fusion protein inherited from viruses.

You can find TWiV #432 at microbe.tv/twiv, or listen below.

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TWiV 430: The persistence of herpesvirus

The TWiX cabal discuss sexual transmission of Zika virus in mice, and how immune escape enables herpes simplex virus escape from latency.

You can find TWiV #430 at microbe.tv/twiv, or listen below.


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TWiV 429: Zika Experimental Science Team

Vincent meets with members of team ZEST at the University of Wisconsin Madison to discuss their macaque model for Zika virus pathogenesis.

You can find TWiV #429 at microbe.tv/twiv, or listen/watch right here.

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Viral RNA is not infectious virus!

Zika RNA and virusA study of sexual transmission of Zika virus among mice (link to paper) demonstrates beautifully that viral nucleic acid detected by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is not the same as infectious virus.

Male mice were infected with Zika virus and then mated with female mice. Efficient sexual transmission of the virus from males to females was observed. This observation in itself is very interesting but is not the focus of  my comments.

To understand the dynamics of sexual transmission, the authors measured Zika virus shedding in seminal fluid – by both PCR, to detect viral RNA, and by plaque assay, to detect infectious virus. The results are surprising (see figure – drawn in my hotel room).

Zika virus RNA persisted in semen for up to 60 days – far longer than did infectious virus, which could not be detected after about three weeks.

Many laboratories choose to assay the presence of viral genomes by PCR. This is an acceptable technique as long as the limitations are understood – it detects nucleic acids, not infectious virus.

Despite the presence of Zika virus RNA in seminal fluid for at least 60 days after infection, these mice are not likely to transmit virus after a few weeks. There is a lower limit of detection of the plaque assay – approximately 10 plaque forming units/ml – whether that would be sufficient to transmit infection is a good question.

Why Zika viral RNA and not infectious virus would persist for so long is an important and unanswered question that should definitely be studied.

Recently many papers have been published which demonstrate that Zika virus and Ebolavirus can persist in a variety of human fluids for extended periods of time. These results have been interpreted with alarm, both by scientists and by science writers. However, in most cases the assays were done by PCR, not by plaque assay, and therefore we do not know if infectious virus is present. Viral RNA would not constitute a threat to transmission, while infectious virus would.

The lesson from this study is very clear – in novel experimental or epidemiological  studies it is important to prove that any viral nucleic acid detected by PCR is actually infectious virus. Failing to do so clouds the conclusions of the study.

There are few excuses for failing to measure viral infectivity by plaque assays. Please don’t tell me it’s too much work – that’s a poor excuse on which to base selection of an assay. Even if your virus doesn’t form plaques there are alternatives for measuring infectious virus.

If you are wondering how a plaque assay is done, check out my short video below.

TWiV 426: I’m Axl, and I’ll be your cervid today

The sages of TWiV explain how chronic wasting disease of cervids could be caused by spontaneous misfolding of prion protein, and the role of the membrane protein Axl in Zika virus entry into cells.

You can find TWiV #426 at microbe.tv/twiv, or listen below.

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