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Dormant shingles virus unraveled

Research coordinated by Erasmus MC's department of Virology and University College London has helped understand how the shingles virus in humans can lie dormant in the central nervous system for years.

GordelroosResearchers all over the world have been trying to understand this latent virus for almost 35 years. The researchers published their findings in the scientific journal Nature Communications at the end of March. According to the researchers, their discovery will help in the search for a treatment for shingles.

Body rash
Shingles, caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV), creates a painful body rash that is most common in people over 60 years old or those with a weakened immune system. The disease is often associated with symptoms such as chronic pain, and can even lead to blindness and stroke.

The first infection by the virus, usually in childhood, causes chickenpox. After this initial infection the virus remains inactive in the body's nerve cells for life. This is called latency. Almost 90% of the world's adults are infected with the virus, and up to a third of them will develop shingles in their lifetime.

Preventive treatments
"We have already known for 35 years that VZV remains in the nerves. But it is unclear what the virus looks like or how it is maintained. In our study we describe the discovery of a particular gene of the virus that is activated during latency", says researcher Dr. Werner Ouwendijk.

It was possible to identify this VZV gene by using unique clinical material and an innovative molecular biological method. The study also showed that the virus gene inhibits the multiplication of VZV. "This has enabled us to get to the core component of the VZV infection, which can serve as a starting point for further research on the infection. Our ongoing research focuses on clarifying the role of this unique VZV gene, which will ultimately enable the development of new preventative treatments for chickenpox and shingles", says Dr. Georges Verjans, head researcher at the Virology department.

Date published: 23 March 2018.

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