In the months alince the epidemic has emerged as a global threat, Yale researchers and faculty have played a significant role in efforts to understand and combat Zika, with many working closely with Brazilian colleagues.
From the emergence of Zika virus in Brazil in late 2015 through its detection in Florida this past summer, Zika research at Yale has grown substantially. At present, researchers and faculty across the University are working to address many issues arising from the virus — from the science of its transmission and infection to the effect of the epidemic on women’s rights, environmental issues and social justice in affected areas. According to several Yale faculty involved with the disease research, on-the-ground collaboration with Brazilian scientists and organizations has made Yale’s research more effective.
On Aug. 25, Yale School of Medicine professor Akiko Iwasaki co-published a study in which the researchers developed the first model demonstrating the sexual transmission of the Zika virus in mice. The study shows that the Zika virus replicates in the vaginal tract for five days after infection, which in pregnant mice results in infection of the fetal mouse brain and growth restriction of the fetal mouse. The Zika virus has been associated with causing microcephaly — incomplete brain development resulting in abnormal smallness of the head — in human infants.
Iwasaki acknowledged that research conducted at Yale has made a significant impact in understanding the Zika virus with respect to its epidemiology and pathogenesis, but she said there is a great deal more to be done.
“First, we need a good vaccine for Zika virus that would protect against disease and microcephaly. Second, we need to develop therapeutic approaches to prevent microcephaly in the fetus of infected mothers,” Iwasaki said. “Third, there are many fundamental, basic scientific questions for which we need answers.”
In recent months, research on such basic scientific issues underpinning Zika has increased at Yale, according to Sarah Householder ’18, who over the past summer researched Zika in the lab of medical school professor Erol Fikrig.
Householder, whose summer research investigated the pregnant body’s reaction to Zika, said that despite the international attention surrounding the virus, relatively little is known. She added that it is crucial for researchers to gain an understanding of its underlying mechanisms, and that this — rather than developing a cure or vaccine for Zika — was the aim of her work.
Medical school professor Brett Lindenbach’s Zika research similarly concentrates on the workings of the virus.
Lindenbach, whose research uses genetic tools to investigate how viral mutations affect the life cycles of the virus, said that recent breakthroughs at Yale have bolstered the institution’s significant role in the global Zika effort.
“The [Yale research] papers that just came out … are major advancements in the field, so I would say that indeed [research at Yale has been significant],” Lindenbach said. “We are leaders in the field.”
Research at Yale has not been limited to the nature of the virus itself: the work of several faculty members concerns broader societal implications and the means by which affected persons live through the epidemic. For instance, Albert Ko, the chair of the medical school’s Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases, has led research on the interaction between the Zika virus and Brazil’s rapid urbanization.
Ko told the News he has worked on the surveillance of Brazilian maternity hospitals to identify the consequences for children born to infected mothers. He has also worked on community-based studies with residents of the slums of Salvador to better understand the transmission. Ko said such community-based studies can clarify whether initial Zika infection causes acquired immunity — resistance to a virus following an initial infection — in humans.
Ko stressed that the “real heroes” of the epidemic are Brazilian researchers and organizations.
Christine Ricardo, a clinical fellow in the Yale Health Justice Partnership, also underscored the importance of collaboration with Brazilian colleagues in Zika research, noting that Yale’s resources and leverage should be used to support the affected populations.
“From my understanding, [Ko’s research] has been very much in support of what folks are doing in Brazil,” Ricardo said. “This is not a university from the north trampling on processes. It has been very respectful of Brazilians setting the agenda and what they need and what we can support — that’s happening on the hard sciences side, and we’ve been trying to do that. We very much defer to [Brazilian] partners in terms of what they need and recognizing that we are bringing all the resources and privileges of a North American university.”
Ricardo’s Zika work has involved supporting students at Yale Law School in a litigation case taken against the Brazilian government in order to secure more services for women and families suffering from Zika.
Ricardo said her work also supports Brazilian nonprofit organizations with grant proposals and has launched a qualitative study of Brazilian women and men with regard to reproductive behavior and health services in the context of the epidemic. This involved investigating the gender and power dynamics relating to Zika-infected pregnancies.
And Zika work has been accelerated thanks to a changed funding landscape at the National Institutes of Health. Lindenbach said while the NIH normally has three research funding deadlines per year, it adopted a rolling deadline model for Zika research this year.
Lindenbach said he did not think this change had made a substantial impact on Zika research levels at Yale. But Householder said that the increased availability of funding has made Zika research more competitive.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2,722 cases of Zika have been counted within the United States.
Correction, Sept. 3: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly identified the location of Albert Ko’s work. In fact, he conducts research in the slums of Salvador, Brazil, not El Salvador.