Immunizing female mice with a Zika vaccine can protect their developing fetus from infection and birth defects during pregnancy, according to new UTMB research. The findings of the study were recently published in Cell, a medical journal.
Although rapid and promising progress on developing vaccines has been made with animal models, the UTMB study is the first to demonstrate that potential vaccines could protect a fetus from the Zika virus.
“We were the first to show that two different potential vaccines given to the mother prevent the Zika virus from infecting the fetus during pregnancy in a mouse model,” said UTMB’s Dr. Pei-Yong Shi, senior author and the I.H. Kempner Professor at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “Based on these data, we believe that evaluating the vaccines’ ability to prevent birth defects in humans is warranted.”
While a Zika infection typically results in mild or symptom-free infections in healthy adults and children, the risk of microcephaly—a neurological condition in which a baby’s head is abnormally small because its brain did not develop correctly—and other diseases in a developing fetus is an alarming consequence that has created a worldwide health threat. Pregnant women who are infected with the Zika virus but never display any disease symptoms may still give birth to a baby with microcephaly.
Researchers vaccinated female mice against Zika with one of the two developing vaccines before they became pregnant and then exposed the mice to the virus during their pregnancies. Shi and colleagues found little or no evidence of the virus in the vaccinated pregnant mice or in the fetuses’ bodies.
“Having a Zika vaccine that can protect pregnant women and their unborn babies would improve public health efforts to avoid birth defects and other effects of the disease in regions where Zika is circulating,” Shi said.
UTMB is working with the Brazilian Ministry of Health to develop a vaccine for Zika virus, which became a worldwide health threat last year, showing up in more than 70 countries and infecting more than 5,000 people in the U.S. last year.
Other authors include UTMB’s Dr. Chao Shan, Camila Fontes, Bruno Nunes, Dr. Daniele Medeiros, Antonio Muruato, Dr. Huanle Luo, Dr. Tian Wang, Dr. Alan Barrett, Dr. Scott Weaver and Dr. Shannan Rossi; Drs. Justin Richner, Brett Jagger, Bin Cao, Elizabeth Caine and Indira Mysorekar from Washington University School of Medicine; Dr. Kimberly Dowd, Bryant Foreman and Dr. Theodore Pierson from the National Institutes of Health; Sunny Himansu and Dr. Giuseppe Ciaramella from Valera LLC, a Moderna Venture, as well as Dr. Pedro Vasconcelos from Evandro Chagas Institute, Ministry of Health, Parå State University, Brazil.
This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the March of Dimes, Moderna, UTMB, The University of Texas System, the Pan American Health Organization, the Ministry of Health of Brazil, the Brazilian Agency for Scientific and Technological Development, and the Coordination of Professionals of High Level Degree of the Ministry of Education of Brazil.