UIC Nursing faculty member on team to study promising Zika vaccine

Julienne Rutherford

The Zika virus doesn’t make healthy adults very sick; at worst, it produces mild, flu-like symptoms.

But the real concern lies when a pregnant woman gets infected with Zika. Then, the mosquito-transmitted virus can cause miscarriage, pre-term birth or devastating birth defects, such as microcephaly, a condition where the head circumference is smaller than usual.

There’s currently no approved vaccine for the virus, but Julienne Rutherford, PhD, UIC Nursing associate professor, is part of team that recently won a grant to study a promising, experimental Zika vaccine called ZPIV, which was developed by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

The three-year, $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense will test the effectiveness of the vaccine on animal models — marmoset monkeys housed at the Southwest National Primate Research Center — both before and during pregnancy. Primary investigators on the study, which is funded through the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program, are Jean Patterson, PhD, of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, and Marcia Blackman, PhD, of Trudeau Institute of New York.

“This is desperately needed because the women themselves aren’t getting sick,” Rutherford says. “The real cost, the human cost, is what’s happening to that fetus. We really need to test these things in a pregnancy model, and that’s the great value of a nonhuman primate model.”

The Zika virus targets the central nervous system, specifically brain and optic tissue, and outbreaks have been reported in islands of the Pacific, Brazil, the Americas and Africa. To date, 86 countries and territories have reported evidence of infection, according to the World Health Organization.

Rutherford, a biological anthropologist who is an expert in marmoset pregnancy and reproductive biology, will be specifically looking at the placentas of the marmosets. The Zika virus is transmitted from mom to fetus directly through the placenta. Rutherford will be investigating whether the function of the placenta, which provides crucial nutrients to the fetus, may also be compromised by the virus.

“We know the placenta does become infected with Zika virus and that’s how it’s getting to the fetus,” Rutherford says. “It’s called vertical transmission. But we’re also going to be able to look at whether there something in addition that’s happening to the function of the placenta that’s exacerbating the outcomes.”

Rutherford adds that the virus’ effect on the placenta itself is important to know because it could lead to targeted repair or therapy for the placenta.

Marmosets are an ideal model because they have shorter gestational periods, have multiple offspring and get pregnant quickly again after giving birth, giving scientists more samples to study in a shorter time period, Rutherford says.