Bioethics Blogs

Zika and Birth Defects: The Evidence Mounts

Caption: Human neural progenitor cells (gray) infected with Zika virus (green) increased the enzyme caspase-3 (red), suggesting increased cell death.
Credit: Sarah C. Ogden, Florida State University, Tallahassee

Recently, public health officials have raised major concerns over the disturbing spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus among people living in and traveling to many parts of Central and South America [1]. While the symptoms of Zika infection are typically mild, grave concerns have arisen about its potential impact during pregnancy. The concerns stem from the unusual number of births of children with microcephaly, a very serious condition characterized by a small head and damaged brain, coinciding with the spread of Zika virus. Now, two new studies strengthen the connection between Zika and an array of birth defects, including, but not limited to, microcephaly.

In the first study, NIH-funded laboratory researchers show that Zika virus can infect and kill human neural progenitor cells [2]. Those progenitor cells give rise to the cerebral cortex, a portion of the brain often affected in children with microcephaly. The second study, involving a small cohort of women diagnosed with Zika virus during their pregnancies in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, suggests that the attack rate is disturbingly high, and microcephaly is just one of many risks to the developing fetus. [3]

The NIH-supported study, described in a recent issue of Cell Stem Cell, was led by Guo-li Ming and Hongjun Song of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and Hengli Tang of Florida State University, Tallahassee. Their research teams turned to human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, derived from skin biopsies, to produce human neural progenitor cells (hNPCs).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.