We still don’t have a vaccine to protect pregnant mothers against the Zika virus, but new research suggests an already approved malaria drug has potential to prevent Zika virus in a mother's bloodstream from crossing over to her child’s.

A new study has found that the popular malaria drug hydroxychloroquine blocks the Zika virus passing from mother to her unborn fetus. What’s more, this drug is already shown to be safe for pregnant women, so it could be an effective way for such women in Zika-infested areas to prevent their children from developing birth abnormalities related to the infection.

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"We would urge caution but nevertheless feel our study provides new avenues for possible therapeutic interventions," said senior study author Indira Mysorekar, in a recent statement. "Our study suggests that an autophagy-based therapeutic intervention against Zika may be warranted in pregnant women infected with Zika virus."

Normally, the placental barrier, a layer of tissue in the placenta, helps to keep harmful substances and infections from passing from the mother to the baby. However, this barrier isn't perfect. Certain chemicals, such as alcohol and other illicit drugs, as well as some diseases and infections are able to pass through this barrier. Zika can make it past the placental barrier, and it can also multiply here.

While the Zika virus is relatively harmless in children and adults, causing uncomfortable flu-like symptoms that pass on their own in a few weeks, the virus is far more detrimental to the developing fetus. In some cases, the Zika virus can cause microcephaly, a birth defect that leads to a very small head along with significant development problems, as well as other severe brain defects and eye problems, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

For the study, which is now published online in The Journal of Experimental Medicine, the team from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis gave pregnant mice the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. In doing so, they observed that the drug interfered with the Zika virus’ ability to manipulate the placental barrier. As a result, although both treated and untreated mice mothers had about the same amount of Zika in their own bloodstream, the researchers found significantly less Zika virus in the fetuses and placentas of mice that were given hydroxychloroquine.

These results are exciting, suggesting that there may finally be a way to protect unborn children from the potentially devastating effects of a Zika infection. However, the team urge that although hydroxychloroquine is approved for use in pregnant women for short periods of time, it's not clear if the drug could have side effects when used for longer periods of time. The researchers plan to further investigate this drug's potential in preventing devastating Zika-related birth defects in infants.

Source: Cao B, Parnell LA, Diamond MS, Mysorekar IU. Inhibition of autophagy limits vertical transmission of Zika virus in pregnant mice. Journal of Experimental Medicine . 2017

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