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Fast-Breeding Opossum Could Be Key to Zika Control

6 months 1 day 21 hours ago Monday, January 13 2020 Jan 13, 2020 January 13, 2020 7:39 PM January 13, 2020 in News - Local

BROWNSVILLE – A species of opossum may hold the key to stopping the Zika virus.

The effort at the UT Rio Grande Valley Department of Human Genetics is looking towards the future. Among the questions they seek to answer – what will happen to infants recently born with symptoms of the virus.

"Babies infected in utero in 2015 are only four years old," said Dr. John Vandberg, who heads the program. "We don't know what's going to happen in their development as they get older."

There have been no locally acquired cases of Zika virus infection in the last two years, according to CDC data. But the most recent outbreaks occurred between 2014 and 2017. Researchers are left wondering about the long-term effects of the virus.

A South American opossum species allows them a glimpse at what developmental issues the Zika virus could cause. The grey short-tailed opossum has a four year lifespan. Its similarities to humans are enough to draw some comparisons.

"One opossum year is about 25 human years," said Vandeberg. "So in one year we can study the equivalent of about 25 human years of life."

The opossum mothers breed quickly, sexually maturing at six months. They produce up to four litters a year, with up to ten babies, said Vandeberg.

The research requires the inoculation of embryonic opossums with the Zika virus. The results are observed.

Vandeberg hopes the same model can be used to test future vaccines.

"But the animals are not in pain," he said.

He says the tests are done humanely, under the guidance of a committee and a chief veterinarian.

"We treat the animals with the highest respect," he said.

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