Researching Zika and birth defects

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Researching Zika and birth defects

UW Medicine obstetrician/gynecologist and her colleagues seek to prevent birth defects in Zika virus infection
Heather VanDusen Wilson

When UW Medicine researcher Kristina Adams Waldorf heard about Zika and the cases of microcephaly just a few weeks ago, she was determined to do something to help the women in Brazil and other countries where the virus is epidemic. Adams Waldorf is an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington.

Infants with microcephaly are born with unusually small heads and incomplete brain development. The prognosis for babies with this birth defect is very poor, and it’s unknown if they will reach adulthood.

There are no therapies that can help pregnant women and babies affected by Zika, and a vaccine to prevent infection could take years. 

Zika virus
The arrow in this transmission electron micrograph points to a Zika virus particle.
Zika virus micrograph

“As a mother, an obstetrician/gynecologist and a scientist, seeing these cases of microcephaly was absolutely devastating,” said Adams Waldorf. “Knowing that we have the tools here at the UW to make a real impact on this disease, I knew we had to pull a team together.”

Adams Waldorf is working with researchers in neuroscience, infectious disease, radiology and pharmacy to study the Zika virus and learn how birth defects can be prevented. Their ultimate goal is to come up with a therapeutic that will minimize fetal brain injury or prevent it altogether. The team is applying for funding from the National Institutes of Health.

The cause-and-effect relationship between Zika and microcephaly and other poor pregnancy outcomes in South America has not been established. Little is known about the virus, which has been implicated in disease since 1947.

“We know that cytomegalovirus, rubella virus and a number of other viruses can cause microcephaly, so it is not a stretch that Zika is doing the same,” said Adams Waldorf. “However, microcephaly is not something we’ve seen with dengue fever, which is a closely related flavivirus. It may be something unique to Zika in its biology that is enabling it to transfer in a way to the fetal brain and cause brain injury. We just don’t know and have so much to learn.”

Until more is known, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant not travel to any area where Zika virus transmission is occurring.

“If it were my sister or my patient, I would strongly recommend to not travel to countries with known or even suspected Zika cases while you are pregnant,” said Adams Waldorf. She has been studying infectious disease in preterm labor for 15 years.

Normally funding from the NIH takes a long time to emerge, but Adams Waldorf is hoping it will be available within the year.

“Meaningful research requires money and that’s what we need to make inroads with Zika,” she said.