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CU researcher Penny Clarke, PhD, secures CCTSI pilot grant to study Zika virus

Penny Clarke, PhD
CCTSI Pilot Grant Awardee Penny Clarke, PhD
By Wendy S. Meyer

Early last year, the World Health Organization declared Zika virus an international public health emergency. Zika virus (ZIKV) is responsible for a massive pandemic that is associated with several devastating neuropathologic conditions, including microcephaly and other birth defects in newborns, and Guillain-Barré syndrome, an immune-mediated disease resulting in nerve damage and temporary but often severe paralysis, in adults. Though the World Health Organization later downgraded their assessment of the threat, the virus has since spread to almost every country in the western hemisphere except Canada. 

Far from the tropical environs where Zika thrives, researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical campus are investigating how exactly the virus causes damage to the central nervous system (CNS). To help do this groundbreaking work, the Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute just awarded Neurology Professor Penny Clarke a $30,000 pilot grant for her translational neuroscience research. 

“We want to understand in more detail what happens when the [Zika] virus infects the CNS,” says Dr. Clarke, “including which CNS cells it infects and what cellular signaling pathways contribute to CNS injury and disease.” 

By better understanding cellular signaling pathways that are activated in the central nervous system following ZIKV infection, Clarke and her team will attempt to manipulate these pathways in order to achieve beneficial disease outcomes. They’ll try to determine if host responses can be altered so that infection isn’t as bad or as damaging. 

Clarke hopes her study, which uses a neonatal mouse model in addition to ex vivo brain and spinal cord slice cultures, will allow the rapid identification of therapeutic targets for ZIKV-induced CNS disease.  Clarke and her colleagues also study West Nile virus and Japanese encephalitis virus, which are important causes of virus-induced central nervous system disease worldwide. In addition, the lab is investigating the role of Enterovirus D68 in recent cases of paralysis in children.

“It is our hope that a better understanding of host cell responses to ZIKV infection will have broad implications for other viral and non-viral causes of CNS diseases.”

2017 marks the ninth year that CCTSI has been awarding pilot grants to promising researchers; more than 350 grants have been given in that time. Click here for further information​ on 2017 CCTSI Pilot Grant awardees and to learn how to apply for future grants. 

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