Public Data Sharing

January 23, 2017

Open-Lab Notebook enables rapid, collaborative response to Zika virus research questions.

More than 2 billion people live in high-risk areas for infection with Zika virus, the mosquito-borne pathogen that can cause microcephaly and other serious birth defects and health problems. A major outbreak of Zika virus infection occurred in Brazil in 2015, and it has since spread to a number of other countries. The risks from Zika virus infection are so significant that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning pregnant women not to travel to any area where the infection is spreading.

The urgent need for scientific understanding of the virus is forcing innovations in how science is communicated. A prime example is the Zika Open-Research Portal, which makes raw data, commentary, and study results publicly available in real time, for sharing across labs and disciplines.

This open lab notebook is the brainchild of the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WNPRC), one of seven NPRCs supported by the Office of Research Infrastructure Programs (ORIP). “We realized early on that we were going to be the first to have data on Zika virus in nonhuman primates,” explains Dave O’Connor, Ph.D., professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and associate director of WNPRC. “And we also realized that the earlier we made that data available to the rest of the community, the more valuable it would be.”

The portal provides direct links to multiple ongoing Zika virus-related studies on rhesus macaques at Wisconsin. Other NPRCs conducting Zika virus research have followed suit with public sites, including centers in Oregon,  California, and Washington.

“These primates are supporting research by many labs with many areas of expertise,” says Koen Van Rompay, DVM, Ph.D., research virologist at the University of California–Davis. “Right now Zika virus is a large black box. But we’re starting to make a large dent in it.” Branches of science involved in the collaborative research include virology, neurology, pathology, immunology, reproductive biology, and hematology, among others.

Researchers have already confirmed that currently circulating strains of Zika virus are capable of infecting macaques; this means that the primate can serve as a model for the human disease. They have now turned to focused questions, such as what happens to the fetus when a pregnant animal is infected in the first, second, or third trimester; how immunity is developed against reinfection; and how to create a vaccine that can protect not only adults but also fetuses from infection. Through the macaque research, the Wisconsin researchers have already discovered that initial infection with Zika virus protects against future infection, though pregnancy may drastically prolong the time the virus stays in the body.

While initial research has focused on problems associated with pregnancy, Dr. O’Connor notes that “it’s entirely possible that we’re going to discover damage to other tissue and organs that hasn’t been appreciated with people. And through experimentation with primates, we can also potentially exclude things. For example, if we study a biological system and discover there is no impact from Zika virus infection, that is one less thing that has to be investigated in people.”

Visitors to the Open-Research Portal site hail from more than 100 countries, and Dr. O’Connor says that feedback has been positive. Concerns—such as the possibility that public sharing of data might adversely affect the ability to publish findings in scientific journals—have not materialized. “In fact, if people make use of the data to get a story out of it, in the context of a public health emergency, that’s a good thing.”

In addition to macaques, a variety of other animal models of human disease are available to support investigators conducting biomedical research. ORIP provides access to these models, scientific expertise, and facilities; these are made available through ORIP’s Comparative Models program. ORIP also provided funds to support adaptation of the software for use at the NPRCs and the website that hosts the Zika Open-Research Portal.


Related reading:

Kallas, E. G., & O’Connor, D. H. (2016). Real-time sharing of Zika virus data in an interconnected world. JAMA Pediatrics. Published online March 31, 2016. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.0857

Dudley, D. M., et al. (2016).  A rhesus macaque model of Asian-lineage Zika virus infection. Nature Communications (7). Published online June 28, 2015. doi:10.1038/ncomms12204

Waldorf, K. M. A., et al. (2016). Fetal brain lesions after subcutaneous inoculation of Zika virus in a pregnant nonhuman primate. Nature Medicine. Published online September 12, 2016. doi:10.1038/nm.4193.

Last updated: 10-23-2019