NIH Researchers Discover Highly Infectious Vehicle for Transmission of Viruses
Researchers have found that a group of viruses that cause severe stomach illness—including the one famous for widespread outbreaks on cruise ships—get transmitted to humans through membrane-cloaked “virus clusters” that exacerbate the spread and severity of disease. Previously, it was believed that these viruses only spread through individual virus particles. The discovery of these clusters, the scientists say, marks a turning point in the understanding of how these viruses spread and why they are so infectious. This preliminary work could lead to the development of more effective antiviral agents than existing treatments that mainly target individual particles.
The researchers studied norovirus and rotavirus—hard-to-treat viruses that are the most common cause of stomach illness, or gastroenteritis, and that afflict millions of people each year. The viruses cause symptoms ranging from diarrhea to abdominal pain and can sometimes result in death, particularly among young children and the elderly. Their highly contagious nature has led to serious outbreaks in crowded spaces throughout many communities, most notably in cruise ships, daycare centers, classrooms and nursing homes. Fortunately, vaccines against rotavirus are now available and are routinely given to babies in the United States.
“This is a really exciting finding in the field of virology because it reveals a mode of virus spread that has not been observed among humans and animals,” said study leader Dr. Nihal Altan-Bonnet, senior investigator and head of NHLBI’s Laboratory of Host-Pathogen Dynamics. “We hope that it will provide new clues to fighting a wide range of diseases involving many types of viruses, including those that cause gastrointestinal illnesses, heart inflammation, certain respiratory illnesses and even the common cold.”
The study, supported in part by NHLBI and NIAID, is featured as the cover story of Cell Host & Microbe and appeared online on Aug. 8.