Wanted: New approach in the fight against herpes viruses

HZI researcher coordinates research project that is funded in several European countries




Almost every human is a carrier of herpes viruses. Usually, an inactive form of the virus is present in the body. Problems due to the virus usually arise only when the immune system of the host is compromised. Scientists of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig now aim to study the underlying mechanism more closely in collaboration with colleagues from four other European research institutions. This work might lead to new approaches for therapy. This initiative is sponsored by an Infect-ERA grant of the European Commission.

Herpes viruses can cause a variety of different diseases including labial herpes, shingles and chickenpox. It is typical of viruses of the herpes family that they are not fully removed from the body after an infection. Rather, they switch to a latency stage and can thus survive unharmed in the human body. Usually without causing the human host any problems.

"Only when the immune system is compromised by another disease, as is the case, for example, in AIDS patients, the pathogens are re-awakened and become a problem," says Prof Luka Cicin-Sain, head of the junior research group, Immune Ageing and Chronic Infections, at the HZI, who coordinates the cooperative project titled eDEVILLI.

Collaborating with colleagues from Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg, Karolinska Institute in Sweden, University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna and Université de Bordeaux in France, Cicin-Sain aims to discover the details of the transition into the latency stage. Applying methods from systems biology and genetic manipulations of viruses and host cells, the researchers aim to find out under which circumstances a virus causes an immediate infection or transitions into a latency stage. "Once we understand this, we might be able to make use of the mechanism to develop new medications and therapeutic approaches," says Cicin-Sain. "We might try to keep the virus in some sort of artificial coma."

The European Commission sponsors projects in the field of human infectious diseases through "Infect-ERA". The main aim is to coordinate research funding more closely throughout Europe. Describing the strength of the initiative about to commence, Cicin-Sain says: "The different research groups have different expertise and we can now bundle this in order to take an important joint step in the fight against infections caused by herpes viruses." 

For further information about Infect-ERA visit www.infect-era.eu.