Unlocking the Mysteries Surrounding Zika
Darin Seehafer
Darin Seehafer
Sr. Director, Center for Vaccines and Emerging Infectious Diseases

Researchers are now closer to understanding how the Zika virus affects babies as they grow in utero. In an article published in Nature Communications, researchers assert that the Zika virus damages the placenta, causing it to become inflamed and thickened.

In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers studied five pregnant rhesus monkeys, using non-invasive imaging to evaluate how persistent Zika infection affects pregnancy. They found that the virus significantly increased inflammation of the vessels in the uterus and damaged placental villi. This is of particular interest because the placental villi help move oxygen and nutrients from the mother to the fetus. As a result, less oxygen is being transported across the placenta and to the baby. Decreased oxygen levels in a placenta can ultimately impair fetal development and adversely impact the overall health of the baby after birth.

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It has been widely published that the most recent outbreak of Zika resulted in a significant increase in birth defects in babies whose mothers were infected. It was determined by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that approximately 1 in 20 women who became infected with Zika during their pregnancies had a baby with microcephaly or other birth defects likely associated with the virus. It is believed that the greatest risk for microcephaly, associated to Zika, is when the infection occurs in the first trimester.

In the NIH-funded study, led by Daniel Streblow, Ph.D., of the Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute at Oregon National Primate Research Center, the team observed evidence of fetal brain abnormalities in two of the five monkeys, but they did not see any obvious signs of microcephaly. While researchers might have expected a more obvious association, the finding is not inconsistent with other studies that have shown that microcephaly is only one of a spectrum of Zika-induced complications. The researchers and the scientific community agree that this study is important, but more research needs to be done.

As scientists unlock yet another piece to the Zika puzzle, vaccine development continues. In an article published in the NEJM (Sep. 2016) Stephen J. Thomas, M.D. et.al., posed the question, “Fast-Track Zika Vaccine Development — Is It Possible?” The article highlighted many of the key challenges facing pharmaceutical companies as they race to create a viable vaccine against Zika.

This week Takeda Pharmaceuticals did just that. They were granted Fast-Track status by the FDA for their Zika vaccine designated TAK-426. This announcement brings hope to many people who live in Zika effected areas, as they wait for the day they and their unborn children will be safe from this potentially life-altering disease.

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