Zika researcher to co-lead NIH center project on viruses, brain development

Professor of Biological Science Hengli Tang
Professor of Biological Science Hengli Tang

A Florida State University scientist pioneering research to fight Zika and West Nile virus is part of a multimillion project to investigate how quickly the viruses attack human brain cells and how the brain reacts to infection at different stages of development.

FSU Professor of Biological Science Hengli Tang will receive $1.8 million of a total $7.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct Zika and West Nile research in conjunction with University of Pennsylvania, Georgia State and Emory University.

“This work will provide a direct impact on the mission to understand Zika disease mechanisms and to develop effective countermeasures to curb Zika virus infection,” Tang said.

At FSU, Tang and his lab will use a 3D organoid, or “mini brain” model, developed by Professor Guo-Li Ming from the University of Pennsylvania, to investigate how Zika targets brain cells and affects human neural development. Working with the Georgia State University team headed by Professor Margo Brinton, Tang and his lab will also compare and contrast Zika with West Nile virus to better understand how related neurotropic viruses attack the human population and cause different diseases.

The mini brain model will also be used to validate drug candidates that can potentially be used to treat Zika virus infection of the central nervous system.

Through this work, Tang said he and his colleagues expect to identify the rate of Zika infection during the different stages of brain development, the mechanisms by which Zika infection causes developmental defects and any quantitative differences between Zika and West Nile virus regarding their life cycles and responses to drug treatment.

Tang has been at the forefront of Zika research. Tang, Ming and University of Pennsylvania Professor Hongjun Song published the first study that definitively showed that the Zika virus attacked critical neural development cells and interfered with their growth and function. They also reported in a follow-up paper, in collaboration with NIH scientist Wei Zheng, that several existing drug compounds showed potential for treatment options.

His work has been supported by the FSU Office of the Vice President for Research, the College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Biological Science.