February 6, 2019

The 2015-16 Zika outbreak in Brazil caused many babies to be born with severe brain abnormalities. It also prompted researchers at the Southwest National Primate Research Center into action. With a colony of 300 marmosets, they worked from findings which showed that Zika antibodies were present in wild marmosets, meaning they had become infected with the mosquito-borne illness. Specifically, male marmosets have been shown to mimic human disease when infected, leading researchers to ask whether pregnant female marmosets would show similar effects of infection. Marmosets have also shown symptoms similar to humans when infected with Lassa virus, Ebola, dengue and West Nile.

“There is strong interest in the scientific community in developing animal models to understand Zika virus with the goal of developing vaccines and therapies,” said lead author Dr. Suzette Tardif, a Scientist at Texas Biomedical Research Institute and Associate Director of Research at the Southwest National Primate Research Center. “We believe marmosets may be an especially relevant model for effects on infection in pregnancy.”

“We have a theory that the placenta may be a reservoir for the Zika virus, which would explain why there’s so much of it because we find a huge number of infected cells there,” said Dr. Jean Patterson, a researcher at Texas Biomedical Research Institute. She has proposed further studies on the impact of west Nile and other viruses in pregnant marmosets in an effort to pinpoint the link between these emerging diseases and fetal developmental problems in both marmosets and humans.

Researchers exposed pregnant marmosets to the Zika virus during the first half of pregnancy, which caused those pregnancies to end about two weeks after infection. The fetuses also showed evidence of brain abnormalities. For this reason, marmosets may be the “canary in a coalmine” for studying the effects of Zika on human pregnancy and fetal development.

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