Scientists think they now know why congenital cytomegalovirus (CMV) is so effective at evading the immune system.
The discovery could help treat the virus that is responsible for 1,000 birth defects a year in the UK alone.
Congenital CMV is one of the leading causes of hearing loss in children and one of the main causes of childhood disability.
The findings, published in the journal eLife, show how a large number of CMV genes help it hide from the immune system by destroying many of the proteins produced by the body during virus infection and preventing them from activating immune cells to destroy the virus.
“The scale of the effect of CMV’s genes on the immune system surprised us. The number of immune activating proteins destroyed by these virus genes was unprecedented given any previous discoveries of virus immune evasion strategies,” says Ceri Fielding from Cardiff University’s School of Medicine.
“In addition to providing new information that could help develop novel treatments or a cure for this virus, the findings can also tell us more about how our immune system recognizes virus infections beyond CMV.”
Congenital CMV is one of the leading causes of hearing loss in children and one of the main causes of childhood disability. It is the most complex human virus and causes lifelong infection.
Most healthy adults and children who become infected will have no signs or symptoms and no long-term effects. It can however pose serious risks to unborn babies if a pregnant woman catches it for the first time and is a major problem for people with impaired immune systems.
Researchers infected laboratory-grown cells with forms of the CMV virus which differed only by the removal of a single gene. The cells were then compared to those infected with the standard CMV virus to see how their activation of immune cells was different by identifying thousands of individual proteins on the surface of the cell.
Coauthors are from the University of Cambridge, Harvard University, University of Glasgow, and Brno University. The Medical Research Council funded the work.
Source: Cardiff University