April 5, 2017

Change, fueled by passion

Philanthropy advances a doctor’s efforts to promote wider newborn screening for cytomegalovirus, one of the most common causes of disability in children

Combining legislative advocacy with in-depth research and education efforts, Mark R. Schleiss, M.D., and his team are determined to stop a health threat that has been allowed to run rampant for far too long: cytomegalovirus (CMV).

“Cytomegalovirus causes more disabilities than any other infectious disease in children,” says Schleiss, a professor of pediatrics and codirector of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Microbiology Translational Research. These disabilities can include deafness, cerebral palsy, developmental delays, and seizure disorders.

Research shows that babies born to women who become infected with CMV for the first time during pregnancy are the most likely to develop disabilities. Mothers can pass the virus to their babies in utero through the placenta.

Particularly for expectant mothers with toddlers at home, CMV is all too easy to contract. Since CMV is transmitted through bodily fluids such as saliva from a sloppy kiss, pregnant mothers with young children who attend daycare are at a high risk of becoming infected. Premature and underweight babies also are extremely susceptible to CMV.

A type of herpes virus, CMV ends up infecting most of the world’s population eventually, Schleiss notes. “Most people in human history have been infected with CMV,” he says. And once you’re infected, the virus stays with you for life. Throughout a person’s life, the virus can be reactivated by triggers such as stress, sleep deprivation, and malnutrition.

But somehow, this harmful and prevalent virus has managed to fly under the medical radar for decades, even though CMV affects babies more often than Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, and neural tube defects combined, says Schleiss.

Schleiss and his team think CMV deserves all the attention it can get. They’re advocating to make CMV screening standard in Minnesota for the infants who don’t pass their newborn hearing test. (Some states have already done this.) The effort is supported by a three-year Community Health Impact in Pediatrics grant from the Vikings Children’s Fund, a longtime partner of the U’s Department of Pediatrics.

“I am enormously grateful for their support,” Schleiss says.

By identifying the babies affected by CMV very shortly after birth, Schleiss says, the medical team could offer antiviral drugs to minimize the developmental and neurological problems the virus can cause.

Schleiss’ lab also is developing a vaccine strategy that could protect a woman from CMV in her childbearing years, to be administered before she becomes pregnant. The vaccine would thereby guard her baby from infection and CMV-related disability.

Schleiss radiates energy and passion for his work. “We are really excited about what the future holds,” he says. “If we can change practice in Minnesota, wouldn’t that be exciting?”

Find out how you can be part of the effort, or make a gift to the research today at

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