Research Roundup: Excess iron may lead to a harder malaria fight, brain damage and Zika in infants, and more
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In this regular feature on Breakthroughs, we highlight some of the most interesting reads in global health research from the past week.
Extra iron in red blood cells may interfere with essential proteins that protect against malaria, according to a new study published in Science. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health discovered extra iron can interfere with the protein ferroportin—a protein that prevents toxic buildup of iron in red blood cells and helps these cells combat malaria. More so, researchers discovered a mutation of ferroportin in African populations that protects against malaria by shielding against a hormone that prevents iron from being removed from the cells. These findings regarding ferroportin help solve a long-standing mystery as to why iron supplements can sometimes worsen malaria infection, while iron deficiency can in some cases be protective.
A newly published study suggests children infected with the Zika virus during infancy may be at risk of experiencing brain damage. Researchers infected infant monkeys with the Zika virus, and the monkeys subsequently showed brain changes in the hippocampus—the part of the brain involved in regulating emotions, memory, and spatial navigation. After a year of study, researchers noticed the brains of the infected animals progressed differently than the monkeys who were not infected with Zika, suggesting damage and stunting. Though Zika has been linked to brain damage when it infects a fetus in the womb, this research is to first to link brain damage in infants to Zika infection after birth. While more research is needed into how the Zika virus can affect human babies, researchers believe this data may help inform new parents traveling to Zika-endemic areas and clinicians monitoring infants exposed to the virus.
A new blood test is able to predict tuberculosis (TB) development up to two years before onset in individuals living with someone with active TB, according to new research. While individuals who live with someone with active TB are at higher risk of developing TB, only between 5-20 percent of people infected with the TB bacteria actually develop active TB, which means a large number of people are given preventative treatment who may not need it. By jointly measuring the expression levels of four different genes associated with inflammatory responses, this test can more accurately predict the likelihood of developing active TB. Researchers conducted a retrospective study with participants living in homes with people with active TB and found positive results of the blood test in the healthy participants who then later progressed to active TB. While more research is needed on the blood test, researchers are hopeful this test could reduce the number of individuals receiving unnecessary preventative treatments.