SUNDAY, JUNE 24, 2018

Researchers test shingles virus treatments using embryonic stem cells

Researchers test chickenpox virus treatments with embryonic stem cells
Researchers test chickenpox virus treatments with embryonic stem cells | Courtesy of

A team of scientists from Bar-Ilan University (BIU) in Israel recently discovered that human embryonic stem cells are useful for testing drug treatments against varicella-zoster virus (VZV), also known as the chickenpox virus.

The red rash that is a sign of chickenpox typically disappears with a week or two, but even though the rash is gone, the infection remains dormant within the body’s nervous system until the virus receives a signal that resurrects it into a shingles infection.

The researchers recently created a novel experimental model that uses neurons from human embryonic stem cells to test potential treatments and therapies to prevent shingles. This new model may also help scientists discover preventions for other illness that invade the human nervous system, like polio and herpes.

"Most adults harbor latent VZV in their nervous system -- a 'souvenir' from a bout with childhood chickenpox," BIU Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences Member Ronald Goldstein said. "In one-third of people over 50, or in those with weakened immune systems, VZV re-activation triggers the localized rash, itchiness and pain of shingles. In one third of these cases, however, shingles symptoms are far more serious, causing debilitating pain that can last for months or even years. 

"Once the infection took place, fluorescent markers allowed us to differentiate between those neurons with an active viral infection, and those in which the virus was present, but was not actively spreading," Goldstein said. "The green-glowing cells, which were infected with dormant VZV, became our target. Our goal was to break down the cellular defenses that keep VZV quiescent -- essentially, to wake up the virus as a way of modeling what happens when latent VZV wakes up, and attacks the body in the form of shingles.

"Shock causes our bodies' natural defenses to falter -- whether the shock is a physical event like surgery, a ski accident, or even an emotional event, like divorce," Goldstein said. "We therefore 'shocked' the dormant virus into action by introducing events that caused the sleeping virus to wake up and become active. For VZV, this is the first time that such reactivation has been achieved in a laboratory environment."

"We hope to use this model to develop a therapeutic method based on gene editing, which would prevent the virus from waking up and causing shingles," Goldstein said. "Such a method could be used in the treatment of patients with elevated shingles risk, such as people whose immunity has been compromised due to trauma, disease or immunosuppressant therapies."

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Bar-Ilan University

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