Herpes Virus Hijacks Cell's Own Transportation System

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Herpes is a major cause of infectious corneal blindness as well as a host of other diseases, ranging from the common cold sore to life-threatening brain inflammation. The disease is especially dangerous for infants and those with weakened immune systems. Symptoms include itching or burning skin at the infection site and blisters that become painful, oozing sores. After several days, the sores crust over and heal without leaving a scar. After the initial attack, the virus moves to nerve cells and remains there until set off again by a variety of factors, including fever, sun exposure, stress, and menstruation.

Scientists already know that the herpes virus finds its way from the nerve ending to the nerve cell body. This movement is critical for the virus to become dormant and to cause future flare-ups. A recent study suggests exactly how the virus manages this directed movement. Dr. Elaine Bearer at Brown University and her colleagues conducted the study by injecting the herpes virus into the giant nerve cells of a squid. These squid cells are frequently used for such research because they are enormous--7 centimeter (2.75 inches) long and almost a millimeter wide--about the size of a small, straightened-out paper clip. The scientists labeled the virus particles with a fluorescent protein and used a microscope and a digital camera to track the glowing virus as it moved up the giant neuron. The virus moved in one direction, and it traveled at the same constant speed that organelles move within cells. The researchers concluded that the virus usurps the nerve cells' own internal transport machinery.

Other research shows that herpes moves in the same direction and speed in rat nerve cells in culture. Together, these studies strongly suggest that the virus plays the same trick in humans. Understanding how the virus travels within nerve cells may lead to new treatments and perhaps cures for herpes infections. The work not only teaches us about herpes, but also about how normal cellular transport works.


Bearer EL, Breakefield XO, Schuback D, Reese TS, and LaVail JH. Retrograde axonal transport of herpes simplex virus: evidence for a single mechanism and a role for tegument. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2000;97: 8146-50.

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