The results of their study were published on Wednesday. For the past three months, researchers at the school have been looking for clues about how the Zika virus is transmitted from infected mothers to their unborn babies.
“We are the first to show how it happens,” said Dr. Indira Mysorekar, senior co-author of the study.
Not only has the team at Washington University confirmed Zika can cause birth defects, it has discovered the path Zika takes during pregnancy to get through the protective wall between mother and fetus.
“We are thinking that the same proteins or molecules that the virus uses to go to the brain may also be in the placenta, which is why it goes to the placenta,” Mysorekar said.
This is not the sort of testing researchers would do starting with humans, so what the Wash U team did was find a way to make pregnant mice susceptible to the virus, and then expose them to it, giving them a way to map Zika’s path.
“Knowing the sequence of events that takes place during pregnancy provides a platform to show where we are able to block it,” Mysorekar said.
Discovering how Zika penetrates the placenta wall is the kind of scientific breakthrough needed to begin developing and testing Zika therapies and vaccines for humans.
There are no guarantees of success, but without first finding a way to see how the virus travels, there would have been much less hope of finding a way to block its path.