The University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health is stepping up its efforts to learn about the Zika virus, which has been linked to an epidemic of birth defects in Brazil and other parts of Latin America.
Dean Don Burke said Pitt researchers launched the program because they wanted to get involved in the global effort to understand and fight Zika.
“One of the ways to do that is to get organized and the second way to do that is to provide some money, so we thought that’s what we should do,” he said.
According to Burke, the school will kick in $200,000 for research; another $200,000 is coming from an anonymous donor. Federal funding for Zika research has been held up in the Republican-controlled congress.
Dubbed Cura Zika – which translates to “cure Zika” in both Spanish and Portuguese – the program builds on the school’s existing relationship with the Brazilian Health Ministry.
Ernesto Marques is a native of Brazil and a professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at Pitt. He said the long-term goal is to develop a Zika vaccine, but that will require much greater understanding of the virus than currently exists.
“Microcephaly is one of the symptoms,” Marques said, describing the birth defect characterized by a small skull and underdeveloped brain. “It’s not the whole congenital disease. It is a reference for the surveillance system to go after and try to identify the cases (of Zika).”
Celina Martelli, senior public health scientist with the Brazilian Ministry of Health, said researchers know very little about why Zika causes microcephaly in some developing fetuses.
“We don’t know yet the range of abnormalities of the syndrome,” she said. “We don’t know if it’s more important the first, second or third trimester. We don’t know the frequency of spontaneous abortions, the rate of stillbirths, and we don’t know the life expectancy of the children.”
Researchers also want to find out if the placenta plays a role in either blocking or transmitting Zika to the fetus, said Pitt epidemiology professor Jennifer Adibi. They also want to find out if the placenta could play a role in early detection of the Zika virus.
“Is there some specific Zika signature coming from the placenta that we could learn about and then measure in blood or urine and then get more information earlier in pregnancy?”