Zika, UPMC Shine Spotlight on Gap in Research with Pregnant Women

By: Allison Hydzik

ThinkstockPhotos-469910566The recent outbreak of mosquito-borne Zika virus disease and its link to developmental issues in the infants of mothers infected with it highlights a gaping hole in medical research that a UPMC obstetrician is trying to fill.

Today, in an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Richard Beigi, M.D., chief medical officer of Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, calls on the world to learn from this frightening outbreak and change policies that block pregnant women from safely participating in infectious disease prevention research trials.

“This current situation with Zika highlights an often overlooked yet important target area for progress that could translate into a global improvement in maternal-child health,” said Dr. Beigi.

Dr. Beigi and his co-author, Saad B. Omer, M.B.B.S., Ph.D., professor of global health epidemiology and pediatrics at Emory University, explain that pregnant women are a special population when it comes to vaccine and therapeutic medication development. Because nobody wants to adversely impact the development of the baby, these women are almost entirely excluded from research. That means that when a virus like Zika strikes, public health officials are left without the existing groundwork to quickly help protect or advise pregnant women and their babies.

“These barriers are surmountable with concerted efforts and leadership,” said Dr. Beigi, also president of The Infectious Disease Society for Obstetrics and Gynecology. “Strategic planning and action have allowed for advances in pediatric drug development and provide a good model. However, the time to act is now, before the next epidemic takes its toll.”

In their JAMA article, Drs. Beigi and Omer lay out the barriers and present potential solutions.

Dr. Beigi and his colleagues at the Magee-Womens Research Institute & Foundation (MWRIF) have already been making progress.

Right now there are two vaccines licensed for use in all pregnant women: the flu vaccine and Tdap, which primarily targets prevention of whooping cough in newborns. Researchers at Magee are working to expand those recommendations by participating in studies safely investigating new vaccines against Group B Strep, RSV (a serious infection of the respiratory tract), meningococcal disease, and potentially CMV, an infection that can cause developmental delays in the baby.

“Pregnant women deserve to be included in clinical studies,” said Dr. Beigi. “They have great potential for benefit from having appropriate products developed specifically for them and their newborns when it’s scientifically and clinically justified.”

To read more about Magee’s efforts in preventative health research for pregnant women and their unborn babies, read “Protection for Pregnant Women Gets a Shot in the Arm,” on digital page 5 of the latest issue of Magee, a publication of the MWRIF.