New research suggests the virus damages a pregnant mother's placenta , an organ inside a woman's uterus that helps protect and care for a growing baby . The study findings were published in the  Nature Communications  describe how Zika virus infection in five pregnant rhesus monkeys caused placental tissues to become thickened and inflamed .

Though the Zika virus is widely known to have been outbreak that caused children to be born with microencephaly , or having a small head, and other malformations, scientists have struggled to explain how the virus affects a baby as it grows in the womb.

As a result of the study, the researchers saw less oxygen being transported across the placenta and to the baby. Decreased oxygen levels in the placenta can impair fetal development and ultimately the health of a baby after its born.

Antonio Frias, one of the paper's corresponding authors said, "The role of a placenta is to protect and provide nutrition to a growing baby for optimal health." "It is concerning how much damage the Zika virus can do to placenta ."

The paper's two other corresponding authors are associate professor Daniel Streblow and Alec Hirsch, both of whom lead molecular microbiology and immunology research at the OHSU Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute. Streblow also leads pathobiology and immunology research and is a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology within the OHSU School of Medicine.

The reseachers used to non-invasive, in vivo MRI technique in the placenta and oxygen flow between mother and baby. They found that, in monkeys that were infected with Zika early in their pregnancies, the rate of oxygen transport through the placenta decreased about 10-fold.

The OHSU research team also determined the Zika virus can easily pass from mother to baby and remain in the baby, leading to a chronic infection in utero. These findings may provide important insights into the mechanisms by which Zika virus causes disease during pregnancy.

The study provides insights, how both mother and child become infected with and affected by the Zika virus, researchers determined how to prevent its infection and disease. The OHSU research team is using the knowledge gained from this study to help develop a safe and effective Zika vaccine for use during pregnancy .