A newly published study from researchers working in collaboration with the Regenerative Bioscience Center at UGA demonstrates fetal death and brain damage in early chick embryos similar to microcephaly, a rare birth defect linked to the Zika virus, now alarming health experts worldwide.
The team, led by Forrest Goodfellow, a graduate student in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, developed a neurodevelopmental chick model that could mimic the effects of Zika in the first trimester. Historically, chick embryos have been extensively used as a model for human biology.
Early last spring, Goodfellow began inoculating chick embryos with a virus strain originally sourced from the Zika outbreak epicenter.
“We wanted a complete animal model, close to that of a human, which would recapitulate the microcephaly phenotype,” said Goodfellow, who recently presented the findings at the Southern Translational Education and Research (STaR) conference.
The RBC team, which included Melinda Brindley, an assistant professor of virology in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Qun Zhao, an associate professor of physics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, suggests that the chick embryo provides a useful model to study the effects of Zika, in part because of its similarity to human fetal neurodevelopment and rapid embryonic process.
“Now we can look quickly, at greater numbers, to take a closer look at a multitude of different strains and possibly identify the critical window of susceptibility for Zika virus-induced birth defects,” Brindley said. “With this approach, we can continue to further design and test therapeutic efficacy.”
The challenge today is unpredictable disease outbreaks and how to ramp up process and production of therapeutic antibodies in preparation. Having an active pathogen threat like Zika that can jump across continents reinforces the need for therapeutic innovation.
Early stage chick embryos are readily available and low in cost, Goodfellow said. Development within the egg (in ovo) provides an environment that can be easily accessed by high-speed automation. Poultry automation in the Southeast is impressive, and the industry is now using robotic technology, Goodfellow said.
“With egg injection automation and embryo viability technology, we could test tens of thousands of potential therapeutic compounds in a single day,” he said.