Could insulin prevent the spread of dengue, Zika and West Nile Virus?

Written by Lauren Woolfe

Researchers from Washington State University (WA, USA) have suggested that insulin used at the mosquito level could help prevent the spread of Zika, West Nile and Dengue Virus.

Approximately half of the world’s population is at risk of acquiring vector-borne diseases, according to the WHO (Geneva, Switzerland). Flaviviruses, including Zika, West Nile virus and dengue virus, can lead to severe illness and death.

A team of researchers from Washington State University (WSU; USA) has demonstrated that insulin could be key in targeting the spread of these mosquito-borne infections, due to its virus-suppressing downstream effects.

“It’s really important that we have some sort of protection against these diseases because currently, we don’t have any treatments. If we’re able to stop the infection at the level of the mosquito, then humans wouldn’t get the virus ” explained lead author Laura Ahlers (now at the NIH; MA, USA).

In Drosophila, chosen due to their similarity in immune response with mosquitoes, the team identified an insulin-like receptor responsible for preventing viral replication of the West Nile virus within the flies when challenged.

Previous studies have demonstrated that within mosquitoes, insulin increases the immune response. However, the researchers have now deduced that this is due to the activation of the JAK/STAT signaling cascade via ERK, which leads to insulin-dependent suppression of viral replication.

“If we can activate this arm of immunity through the insulin receptor in the mosquito, we can reduce the overall viral load in the mosquito population,” explained author Alan Goodman (WSU).

When the researchers fed mosquitoes with insulin-rich blood, the team demonstrated that this insulin-like receptor, when activated, suppressed cellular West Nile, dengue and Zika virus infections. Therefore, this provides a potential target for researchers hoping to develop interventions against the spread of these deadly diseases.

“If the mosquitoes are carrying less virus when they bite you, they will transmit less of the virus and there’s a better chance you won’t acquire the disease” concluded Goodman.