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Rift Valley fever virus targets the maternal-foetal interface in ovine and human placentas

Oymans, Judith; Wichgers Schreur, Paul J.; Keulen, Lucien van; Kant, Jet; Kortekaas, Jeroen

Summary

BACKGROUND: Rift Valley fever virus (RVFV) is an arbovirus of the order Bunyavirales that causes severe disease in ruminants and humans. Outbreaks in sheep herds are characterised by newborn fatalities and abortion storms. The association of RVFV infections with abortions of ovines and other ruminants is well recognized, whereas the pathology resulting in abortion has remained undescribed. Accumulating evidence suggests that RVFV is abortogenic in humans as well, warranting more research on the interaction of RVFV with the ruminant and human placenta. METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Pregnant ewes were inoculated with a highly virulent strain of RVFV and necropsied at different days post infection. Tissues were collected and analysed by PCR, virus isolation, and immunohistochemistry. The results show that RVFV replicates efficiently in maternal placental epithelial cells before the virus infects foetal trophoblasts. Moreover, the virus was shown to bypass the maternal epithelial cell layer by directly targeting foetal trophoblasts in the haemophagous zone, a region of the ovine placenta where maternal blood is in direct contact with foetal cells. Abortion was associated with widespread necrosis of placental tissues accompanied with severe haemorrhages. Experiments with human placental explants revealed that the same virus strain replicates efficiently in both cyto- and syncytiotrophoblasts. CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: This study demonstrates that RVFV targets the foetal-maternal interface in both ovine and human placentas. The virus was shown to cross the ovine placental barrier via two distinct routes, ultimately resulting in placental and foetal demise followed by abortion. Our finding that RVFV replicates efficiently in human trophoblasts underscores the risk of RVFV infection for human pregnancy.