If you asked someone what Zika was at the beginning of 2016, you likely would have received a blank stare in response. The virus was not relatively well-known until a recent spike, notably in South America, brought the Zika virus to public attention. While Zika itself is less harmful to adults, it is linked to severe birth defects in infants.

Since Zika’s adverse effects primarily impact pregnant women and their unborn babies, researchers at Magee-Womens Research Institute and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center are particularly interested in how the virus spreads and how to prevent its effects on newborns. In just a little over a year since the recent Zika outbreak was first publicized, Magee-Womens Research Institute and UPMC are making significant strides in developing a vaccine and understanding the virus’ long-term effects, giving those affected by Zika new hope.

What is the Zika virus?


Zika viruses on colorful space background, viruses which cause Zika fever found in Brazil. Zika fever in pregnant women leads to microcephaly in fetus. Elements of this image furnished by NASAThe mosquito-borne and sometimes sexually-transmitted virus was originally discovered in 1947. A recent spike of the Zika virus, however, has caused the CDC and World Health Organization to issue health-related travel warnings to infected areas and caution pregnant women who might have had exposure to the virus through mosquito bites, travel, or a sexual partner to see their doctor to monitor the baby’s development.

For exposed adults, symptoms of Zika can be mild and the effects usually harmless long term. Yet Zika is linked to serious birth defects like Guillain-Barre syndrome, microcephaly — a condition where a baby’s head is smaller than expected, leading to incomplete brain development — and other neurological disorders. Pregnant women can pass the virus to their unborn babies, making Zika particularly worrisome to expectant mothers.

Ground-breaking research to find a Zika vaccine

Scientists at Magee-Womens Research Institute have been working to better understand the virus and produce an effective, easily administrable vaccine. Microbiologist Dr. Carolyn Coyne and Magee-Womens Research Institute director Dr. Yoel Sadovsky are investigating how the Zika virus enters the placenta. Placental cells called trophoblasts are not infected by the Zika virus, but there may be other pathways.

080714_magee_4276Pittsburgh’s scientists are not working alone. Pitt researchers and Brazilian research foundation Fiocruz are collaborating on the Cura Zika international alliance to further investigate Zika’s link to birth defects and develop a vaccine. Scientists at Magee-Womens Research Institute have been exploring how the virus transfers to the baby through the mother’s placenta, and how to block it.

In just a short amount of time, scientists have rushed to the front lines of the Zika outbreak to develop ways to combat the virus. Two vaccines were recently developed at UPMC and proved successful at blocking Zika transmission from mothers to babies in trials on mice. While the vaccines are at least a year away from clinical testing with human subjects, scientists are optimistic that they will help in the fight against Zika.

There is still much more to learn about Zika and its neurological effects on infants. While we at Magee-Womens Research Institute and UPMC continue to explore cutting-edge developments and vaccines, you can get updates, facts, and essential information on Zika here.