A new study from Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. has shown how the Zika virus can infect a woman’s placenta without having to kill immune cells. This could have important implications as researchers from all over the world struggle to come up with a viable and effective vaccine for the disease.
The Zika virus is a tropical disease that has been known to affect pregnant women, who in turn give birth to babies with microcephaly. In the months since it has affected several parts of the world, most notably Brazil, the country has seen twin outbreaks of both Zika and microcephaly, with poor families mainly affected by the outbreaks. And since the placenta is designed to provide nourishment to unborn fetuses and protect them from infection, the new Emory study has gone into detail to illustrate how Zika can affect it; instead of the placenta protecting fetuses from the disease, it facilitates its growth and allows it to travel to an unborn baby’s brain. This results in microcephaly, which is a condition where babies are born with underdeveloped heads and brains.
With the new discovery, Zika is the latest virus that can penetrate the placental wall and infect unborn fetuses; other such viruses include HIV, hepatitis B and C, herpes, and rubella. The Zika virus, according to the researchers, infects immune cells in the placenta’s outer region. The virus then grows and replicates, albeit without killing immune cells; it then moves into the innermost compartment. This is information that had previously been unknown to researchers trying to study the nuances of Zika.
“It was known that the virus was getting into the placenta,” explained Mehul Suthar, senior author of the Emory study, in an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “But little was known about where the virus was replicating and in what cell type.”
Suthar and colleagues are still trying to find out how exactly the Zika virus travels from the outer cells to the compartment. But once they do, that should help as researchers, including those from world governments, continue working overtime to create a vaccine for the tropical disease; currently there is no known vaccine for Zika.
In the meantime, Suthar said that his team wants to understand variables that may affect the chances of women transmitting Zika to their unborn babies, such as genetics, their general health, and when the women were infeeted by the disease.
“A better understanding of these factors could allow the design of preventive measures, and eventually antiviral therapies,” he concluded.