The last major Zika virus outbreak began in 2015, which was also the year that Brazil identified a link between the virus and brain damage in developing fetuses. Zika is a mosquito-borne disease that usually causes minor illness in infected patients, but transmission of the virus from an infected mother can cause her growing fetus to be born with an abnormally small head and brain damage, a condition called microcephaly. There is currently no treatment for Zika, nor is there a way to prevent fetal infection.
Now, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University has found that Kineret, an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, may protect infected fetuses from brain damage. We previously knew that inflammation in the fetal brain can cause lasting damage, and that Kineret had been found to prevent fetal brain damage after other kinds of infections. So the researchers infected pregnant mice with the Zika virus, then treated some of them with Kineret. At five days old, the pups of untreated mice had impaired motor and cognitive skills while pups whose mothers had received Kineret showed normal development. Unsurprisingly, the treated pups also had less inflammation in their brains. Kineret also reduced inflammation in and promoted normal developing of the placenta.
Kineret is a well-characterized drug that appears to be safe to use during pregnancy, which smooths the path toward its potential use in Zika patients. Thanks to the Johns Hopkins researchers and some pregnant mice, we just may be more prepared for the next outbreak.