Microcephaly, a rare birth defect linked to the Zika virus, is now
alarming health experts worldwide. A newly published study from researchers working in collaboration
with the Regenerative Bioscience Center at the University of Georgia
demonstrates fetal death and brain damage in early chick embryos similar
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 on
the first trimester. Historically, chick embryos have been extensively
used as a model for human biology.
‘Fetal death and brain damage in early chick embryos similar to microcephaly has been demonstrated by researchers.’
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, closely 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, 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 significant 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," said
Brindley. "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 explained. 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.
Since 2011, under the mentorship of Steven Stice, a Georgia Research
Alliance Eminent Scholar and director of the Regenerative Bioscience
Center, Goodfellow has worked extensively with eggs and chickens. In a
previous project with Stice and Zhao, the team developed a unique
approach of marrying stem cell biology and MRI to track and label neural
"We knew we could look at the brain structure, shape and size with
MRI, but what we captured was evidence that the infection caused
MRI-visible damage, and the total brain volume was substantially
smaller," said Stice, faculty lead and principal investigator of the
study. "From this finding, our data provides a rationale for targeting
future therapeutic compounds in treating early-stage microcephaly to
stop or slow the progress of the disease."