A key virus fighter is implicated in pregnancy woes


Placental tissue
KNOTTY ISSUES Placental tissue (on the right) treated with an immune protein that fights viruses developed knotty structures that resembled those associated with pregnancy complications. Untreated placental tissue (on the left) does not show these structures.

An immune system mainstay in the fight against viruses may harm rather than help a pregnancy. In Zika-infected mice, this betrayal appears to contribute to fetal abnormalities linked to the virus, researchers report online January 5 in Science Immunology. And it could explain pregnancy complications that arise from infections with other pathogens and from autoimmune disorders.

In pregnant mice infected with Zika virus, those fetuses with a docking station, or receptor, for immune system proteins called type I interferons either died or grew more poorly compared with fetuses lacking the receptor. “The type I interferon system is one of the key mechanisms for stopping viral infections,” says Helen Lazear, a virologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who coauthored an editorial accompanying the study. “That same [immune] process is actually causing fetal damage, and that’s unexpected.”

Cells infected by viruses begin the fight against the intruder by producing type I interferons. These proteins latch onto their receptor on the surfaces of neighboring cells and kick-start the production of hundreds of other antiviral proteins.

Akiko Iwasaki, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and immunologist at Yale School of Medicine, and her colleagues were interested in studying what happens to fetuses when moms are sexually infected with Zika virus. The researchers mated female mice unable to make the receptor for type I interferons to males with one copy of the gene needed…

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