BROWNSVILLE, Texas - The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley has over one thousand opossums on campus, but this isn’t a pest control problem.
The South Texas Diabetes & Obesity Institute is using the rodent for research that could greatly impact the Rio Grande Valley.
“The intent is to prevent the disease altogether so we don't ever have to worry about treating them,” John VandeBerg, a professor at the South Texas Diabetes & Obesity Institute.
VandeBerg is collaborating with the UTRGV Department of Biology in developing the laboratory opossum as a model for research on the Zika virus.
“I developed these opossums as a laboratory animal in part because the babies are born at the stage of a six week human embryo so the equivalent stage of a human embryo is six weeks gestation,” VandeBerg said.
Because of the similarity, opossum fetuses can be manipulated experimentally.
“We inoculate these embryos and fetuses with Zika virus and we can study the developmental abnormalities as they develop in the embryos,” he said in an interview with News Center 23’s Marlane Rodriguez.
The possums are not only used for Zika research.
“Another one of our projects involves the control of blood cholesterol when the animals are fed a human like diet,” he said at a laboratory at the UTRGV campus in Brownsville.
The gray short-tailed opossum, native to South America, has the same amount of fat and cholesterol as a North American human diet.
“We’re identifying specific genes that control the ability to prevent blood cholesterol from becoming elevated as we identify these genes they can become targets for therapies in reducing blood cholesterol in susceptible people,” Vandeberg said.
Recent results show that opossums that are infected early in life can develop characteristics that resemble human newborns whose mothers were infected with Zika virus during pregnancy.