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Viroscience has unraveled shingles virus

December 10, 2020

Viroscience researchers have definitively debunked the shingles virus. They know how the virus remains dormant in nerve cells and how it awakens again.

The varicella-zoster virus is somewhat like the sleeping Sleeping Beauty. Only this virus is more of a witch than a princess. It can be present in your nerve cells in deep sleep for years. But when it wakes up, it can cause quite a bit of trouble.


In nearly 90 percent of the world's population, "witch Varicella" is hiding. It usually creeps into childhood and causes chicken pox, a relatively harmless childhood disease. Then it hides asleep for life in nerve cells. When she wakes up decades later, she can cause shingles, a painful rash that can lead to chronic pain, blindness, and even strokes. This happens in more than one in three people who carry the virus. The elderly and people with a weakened immune system due to chemotherapy, for example, are particularly vulnerable.

For more than 35 years, virologists have been in the dark about how the virus lurks in the nerve nodes and what alteration of the virus is needed to wake up from the dormant state. After 10 years of research by the Herpes Lab of the Viroscience department of Erasmus MC, scientists Werner Ouwendijk and Georges Verjans finally have the answers to these questions.

Recipe for awakening

"In recent years, we have revealed step-by-step what the virus looks like in a dormant state. We also recently learned how the virus wakes up. We have brought together all our knowledge from the past years. Two virus genes that are on during the dormant phase, one of which we discovered, appear to be merged. This unique combination of genes contains the recipe for a protein that brings the virus back to life, "explains researcher Werner Ouwendijk. He describes these latest findings, together with researcher Georges Verjans and a team of international colleagues, in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

The approach to shingles is now a bit of a stick. Virus-inhibiting drugs can ensure that people who already have shingles have fewer symptoms. But the drugs do not clear up the dormant virus. "In many other countries, children are given a vaccine against chicken pox, but that does not prevent the virus from retreating into the nerve cells and then awakening," says Georges Verjans.

george and Werner

                                                      Geroger Verjans en Werner Ouwendijk

Sleeping Beauty

Ouwendijk and Verjans want to transform the "witch Varicella" who can wake up at any moment into a real sleeping beauty, like Sleeping Beauty. For this they have received a grant of $ 3.2 million from the American National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "We are going to identify the type of nerve cells that contain dormant and awakening virus. With that knowledge we can cripple the dormant virus. And if it can't wake up, it can't cause shingles, so we really get the disease out of the world, "the researchers said.