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What Johns Hopkins is Doing About Zika Virus

Many unknowns remain about Zika virus. However, researchers at Johns Hopkins are investigating various aspects to learn more about the disease and its potential effects. Here are some ways Johns Hopkins researchers are contributing to this effort:

  • The Johns Hopkins Zika Center is dedicated to caring for pregnant women and newborn babies, but also men and women of all ages with the mosquito-borne and sexually transmitted virus. The center will focus not only on diagnosis and treatment of infected individuals but also on the assessment of long-term effects, as well as new approaches to prevention and treatment of Zika virus infection. The center is comprised of providers and staff members from adult and pediatric departments and divisions within Johns Hopkins Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, including cellular engineering, epidemiology, infectious diseases, maternal-fetal medicine, neonatology, neurology and neurosciences, ophthalmology, orthopaedics, pediatrics, physiotherapy, psychiatry, psychology and social work. Medical experts from Brazil, a country greatly affected by Zika virus, are also members of the center. Patients worldwide can be referred to the center by outside physicians or through several Johns Hopkins departments and divisions. Patients can also call the Wilmer Eye Institute to schedule an appointment. The Zika Center team will also be involved in research to learn more about the virus.

  • Maternal-fetal medicine specialist Irina Burd and neuroimmunologist and virologist Diane Griffin, who also holds an appointment with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, along with school of public health virologists Sabra Klein and Andrew Pekosz, are researching the development of Zika virus in a fetus and mother-to-fetus transmission. The team has promising data demonstrating potential neurologic conditions and birth defects in order to develop and evaluate effective in utero therapies for Zika. Team members believe their studies will have a significant impact on the fields of virology, perinatal medicine and perinatal neurology, as they will lead to a better understanding of Zika virus, mother-to-child transmission, and implications for diagnosis and treatment of fetuses.

  • Rita Driggers, medical director of maternal-fetal medicine for Sibley Memorial Hospital, recently published a case study that highlights brain changes that take place in a fetus infected with Zika virus. The study also suggests that Zika virus remains in the blood of a pregnant woman much longer than previously expected after her fetus has become infected.
  • Pediatric radiologists Thierry Huisman and Andrea Poretti are collaborating with physicians and scientists in Brazil to understand the spectrum of brain defects and injuries in children with microcephaly associated with prenatal Zika virus infection. This collaboration resulted in a recent publication on head CT findings in children with microcephaly and congenital Zika virus infection. The team is currently evaluating brain MRI findings in children with confirmed prenatal Zika infection. In addition, the team is part of an international consortium that aims to develop an online data-sharing platform for head images of fetuses and newborns with congenital microcephaly and Zika virus infection.
  • The laboratories of neuroscience and stem cell scientists Guo-li Ming and Hongjun Song simulate and study the effects of Zika virus on developing brains using human brain cells grown in the lab from induced pluripotent stem cells. Their research was the first to suggest that Zika causes microcephaly by attacking brain-building stem cells known as neural progenitor cells. They also have done additional research centering on “mini-brains” — tiny, three-dimensional structures with many of the features of developing human brains. Their more recent work focuses on fast-tracking the search for a treatment for Zika virus infection. Their study screened 6,000 compounds either approved for use in humans or in late-stage clinical trials for potential neuroprotective or antiviral effects. Of the drugs screened, three show great promise in treating Zika infection in lab-grown cells. 
  • Neurologist Carlos Pardo-Villamizar is the lead investigator for the Neuroviruses Emerging in the Americas Study (NEAS) conducted across multiple medical centers in Central, North and South Americas. The study aims to improve the understanding of the relationship between mosquito-borne viruses, such as Zika virus, and nervous system diseases, such as Guillain-Barre syndrome and microcephaly. It also seeks to establish a comprehensive registry of medical profiles from patients with new onset of neurological diseases associated with mosquito-borne diseases. NEAS hopes to improve the way we understand these diseases and how we take care of the patients affected by them.