Zika virus damages placenta, which may explain malformed babies
Though the Zika virus is widely known for a recent outbreak that caused children to be born with microencephaly, or having a small head, and other malformations, scientists have struggled to explain how the virus affects a baby as it grows in the womb.
Now, new research in a non-human primate model suggests the virus damages a pregnant mother’s placenta, an organ inside a woman’s uterus that helps protect and care for a growing baby.
The study, published in Nature Communications, describes how Zika virus infection in five pregnant rhesus monkeys caused placental tissues to become thickened and inflamed. As a result, the researchers saw less oxygen being transported across the placenta and to the baby. Decreased oxygen levels in a placenta can impair fetal development and ultimately the health of a baby after birth.
The research team also determined the Zika virus can readily pass from mother to baby and remain in the baby long term, leading to a chronic infection in utero. These findings may provide important insights into the mechanisms by which Zika virus causes disease during pregnancy.
By better understanding how both mother and child become infected with and affected by the Zika virus, researchers can determine how to prevent its infection and disease. The OHSU research team is using the knowledge gained from this study to help develop a safe and effective Zika vaccine for use during pregnancy.