Possibility to Create New Drugs to Combat Shingles Increases Due to New Insights by Bar-Ilan University Scientists

Progress is made when Bar-Ilan team develops first lab model for chicken pox-causing virus
Shingles virus cells
Human nerve cells made from embryonic stem cells infected with the varicella zoster virus, the causative agent of chicken pox and shingles. The nerve cells, along with their fine, long processes or axons, appear in red. Genetically engineered for fluorescence, the virus glows green. Credit: Amos Markus

In what promises to be a major breakthrough in the treatment of shingles, scientists at Bar-Ilan University have been the first to recreate the dormant/active behavior of the varicella zoster virus (VZV), which causes chicken pox. Shingles, which afflicts tremendous pain on millions of adults every year, is caused by a "similar" virus. Now scientists have shown a new relationship between the two diseases, which are both known for their painful red rashes.

Research has shown that, in numerous cases, the virus responsible for chicken pox remains dormant. It can then sometimes be "woken up" to trigger the disease shingles (herpes zoster). Shingles is a viral disease brought about by a reactivation with a person’s body of the varicella zoster virus. Unlike chicken pox, shingles is not spread between people.

Shingles virus cells
Prof. Ronald Goldstein

In a new research project, Bar-Ilan University scientists have successfully replicated the "sleeping" and "waking" of the VZV. This development came about by using stem cells and special fluorescent markers, according to Prof. Ronald Goldstein, of BIU’s Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences faculty and mentor of Amos Marcus, a doctoral student who built the model.

Waking Up the Virus that Causes Chicken Pox

After a great deal of experimentation, the Bar-Ilan team managed to wake up the VZV inside. They were able to see this happening through the use of the fluorescent markers.

Goldstein said, "For VZV, this is the first time that such re-activation has been achieved in a laboratory environment."

Shingles virus cells
Research images from a paper on the breakthrough by lead author Amos Marcus, a doctoral student in the lab.

The team's findings are significant because in approximately one-third of adults aged over 50, shingles can occur, triggered by the waking virus. This only happens with people who had chicken pox as children.

The BIU team collaborated on the model with Prof. Paul Kinchington, of the departments of Ophthalmology and of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh.

It is hoped that the insights being gained will lead to a treatment to help people who are suffering from shingles. Such a treatment would attempt to return the virus to its latent state.

In addition, scientists hope that further research will help to explain why some people are more at risk to get a shingles outbreak than others.

To learn more about Bar-Ilan University medical science projects,
contact Howard Charish at howard.charish@afbiu.org or at 212-906-3900.

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