Preventing Zika from being transmitted to fetus is goal of new NIH grant to Hawaii

New funding awarded to the University of Hawaii (UH) may lead to solution to a compelling dilemma — a way to prevent the Zika virus in pregnant women from being transmitted to the fetus.

Infectious disease scientist Mukesh Kumar, PhD, of the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM), will work to enhance our understanding of Zika virus infection and disease in pregnancy, and to develop strategies to prevent transmission of the Zika virus to the fetus.

"Our goal is to develop strategies to prevent transmission of Zika virus to the fetus, and to develop effective therapeutics for treating patients infected with Zika virus," said Dr. Kumar, Assistant Professor with the JABSOM Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology.

Dr. Kumar's study builds upon his recent discovery that guinea pigs are susceptible to infection by a recent American strain of the Zika virus. His lab's development of a guinea pig model is important because it indicates that Zika studies using guinea pigs should provide outcomes similar to those in humans.

"We want to understand how the Zika virus is transmitted to the fetus, how the virus affects pregnancies and how Zika infection can impair infants, causing developmental delays and physical disorders," said Dr. Kumar. He also will examine whether the timing of Zika virus infection during pregnancy affects the ability of the virus to cause fetal developmental abnormalities.

"Ultimately, if the mechanisms by which the Zika virus transmits to the fetus and causes microcephaly are clarified, we can find a way to prevent in utero transmission of the Zika virus," said Dr. Kumar.

Hawaii is particularly at risk for transmission of Zika virus due to its year-round tropical climate favoring abundant mosquitoes, and attracting a high influx of visitors from all over the world including countries where Zika virus is endemic. Several cases of Zika virus have been reported in Hawaii. It is believed that these cases did not initially occur in Hawaii, yet the risk of mosquito transmission is real. UH-JABSOM scientists previously documented the first case of congenital Zika infection in the United States (born in Hawai?i) in December 2015. In this case, a Zika virus-infected mother delivered a baby with microcephaly. Our historical data also suggest the presence of Zika virus-positive cases and associated microcephaly in Hawai?i as early as 2009, i.e., before the disease was medically recognized.

"The Zika virus research by Dr. Kumar and his Tropical Disease and Pediatrics colleagues at the medical school is quite important for the health of the people and economy of Hawaii, " said Dr. Jerris Hedges, JABSOM Dean. "We are very proud of these investigators' dedication to reducing the devastating effects of Zika in unborn children around the world. And we are grateful for the support of Hawaii's Congressional delegation to secure funding to promote this urgent goal."

More about the Grant:

Awarded by: The Office of The Director, National Institutes of Health
Award Number: R21OD024896
Amount: $402,325, from 2017-2019


Downloadable full size photo of Dr. Kumar:

Video Broll of the Zika lab at University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine:

Media Contact

Tina Shelton
[email protected]


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