Zika virus (ZIKV) is an arbovirus member of the Flaviviridae family that causes severe congenital brain anomalies in infected fetuses. The key target cells of ZIKV infection, human neural progenitor cells (hNPCs), are highly permissive to infection that causes the inhibition of cell proliferation and induces cell death. We have previously shown that pharmaceutical-grade heparin inhibits virus-induced cell death with negligible effects on in vitro virus replication in ZIKV-infected hNPCs at the "high" multiplicity of infection (MOI) of 1. Here, we show that heparin inhibits formation of ZIKV-induced intracellular vacuoles, a signature of paraptosis, and inhibits necrosis and apoptosis of hNPCs grown as neurospheres (NS). To test whether heparin preserved the differentiation of ZIKV-infected hNPCs into neuroglial cells, hNPCs were infected at the MOI of 0.001. In this experimental condition, heparin inhibited ZIKV replication by ca. 2 log10, mostly interfering with virion attachment, while maintaining its protective effect against ZIKV-induced cytopathicity. Heparin preserved differentiation into neuroglial cells of hNPCs that were obtained from either human-induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSC) or by fetal tissue. Quite surprisingly, multiple additions of heparin to hNPCs enabled prolonged virus replication while preventing virus-induced cytopathicity. Collectively, these results highlight the potential neuroprotective effect of heparin that could serve as a lead compound to develop novel agents for preventing the damage of ZIKV infection on the developing brain. IMPORTANCE ZIKV is a neurotropic virus that invades neural progenitor cells (NPCs), causing inhibition of their proliferation and maturation into neurons and glial cells. We have shown previously that heparin, an anticoagulant also used widely during pregnancy, prevents ZIKV-induced cell death with negligible inhibition of virus replication. Here, we demonstrate that heparin also exerts antiviral activity against ZIKV replication using a much lower infectious inoculum. Moreover, heparin interferes with different modalities of virus-induced cell death. Finally, heparin-induced prevention of virus-induced NPC death allows their differentiation into neuroglial cells despite the intracellular accumulation of virions. These results highlight the potential use of heparin, or pharmacological agents derived from it, in pregnant women to prevent the devastating effects of ZIKV infection on the developing brain of their fetuses.
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