Mukesh Kumar, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

With a $400,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, infectious disease scientist Mukesh Kumar, of the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM), will investigate the Zika virus in pregnant women. His goal is to develop strategies to prevent transmission of the disease to the fetus.

“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 Kumar, an assistant professor with the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa JABSOM Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology. He also will examine whether the timing of Zika virus infection during pregnancy affects the ability of the virus to cause fetal developmental abnormalities.

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.

“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 Kumar.

Hawaiʻi at risk for transmission

Hawaiʻi 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 Hawaiʻi. It is believed that these cases did not initially occur in Hawaiʻi, yet the risk of mosquito transmission is real.

JABSOM scientists previously documented the first case of congenital Zika infection in the United States (born in Hawaiʻi) in December 2015. In this case, a Zika virus-infected mother delivered a baby with microcephaly. The data also suggest the presence of Zika virus-positive cases and associated microcephaly in Hawaiʻi as early as 2009, i.e., before the disease was medically recognized.

“The Zika virus research by Kumar and his tropical disease and pediatrics colleagues at the medical school is quite important for the health of the people and economy of Hawaiʻi,” said 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 Hawaiʻi’s Congressional delegation to secure funding to promote this urgent goal.”

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