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Arthritis-causing virus hides in body for months after infection

Researchers develop way to ID cells infected with chikungunya

by Tamara BhandariAugust 29, 2019

Alissa Young and Marissa Locke

Since chikungunya virus emerged in the Americas in 2013, it has infected millions of people, causing fever, headache, rash, and muscle and joint pain. For some people, painful, debilitating arthritis lasts long after the other symptoms have resolved. Researchers have suspected that the virus or its genetic material – in this case, RNA – persist in the body undetected, but they have been unable to find its hiding places.

Now, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have figured out a way to detect cells infected with chikungunya virus that survive the infection. They genetically modified the virus such that it activated a fluorescent tag within cells during infection. Months after the initial infection, the researchers could detect glowing red cells still harboring viral RNA.

The study, in mice, opens up new ways to understand the cause of – and find therapies for – chronic viral arthritis.

The findings are published Aug. 29 in PLOS Pathogens.

Senior author Deborah Lenschow, MD, PhD, an associate professor of medicine and of pathology and immunology, and co-first author and graduate student Marissa Locke answered questions about the research, which was conducted in collaboration with co-first author Alissa Young, PhD, co-author Michael S. Diamond, MD, PhD, the Herbert S. Gasser Professor of Medicine, and others.

How common is chronic arthritis caused by chikungunya infection?

Lenschow: Between 30% and 60% of people infected with chikungunya virus go on to develop chronic arthritis that can last up to three or four years after infection. Researchers had found viral RNA in joint fluid from people with chronic arthritis, but they didn’t know whether the virus had gone dormant or whether it was still multiplying and infecting new cells at an undetectably low level.

Locke: Nobody had located the cells that harbored the viral RNA. This matters because if we can’t find the infected cells, we can’t study them.

Where did you find the virus, and what does that tell you about the cause of chronic arthritis?

Locke: We found the virus in muscle cells and in connective tissue cells in the skin and muscle. These cells likely had become infected within the first week of the virus invading the body, yet managed to survive. They were still there in the muscles and joints up to 114 days after infection, and they still had viral RNA inside them.

Lenschow: One hypothesis would be that the viral RNA that’s persisting in the cells is triggering chronic inflammation, and that is what contributes to the symptoms of arthritis. For reasons that we don’t understand, inflammation fails to get rid of the viral RNA, or at least not quickly.

What impact will the development of this new tagging technique have on people suffering from chronic viral arthritis?

Lenschow: We’re a long way from having a treatment to offer people. But the first step to developing a therapy is understanding the cause of the symptoms, and this technique helps us accomplish that. If we understand the cause, that could hopefully lead us to identify therapeutic interventions to help alleviate some of the chronic symptoms.

Locke: We can use this approach to find out what’s driving the chronic inflammation and how to resolve it. We can study which proteins or other components of the immune response worsen or alleviate the inflammation, and what happens to the infected cells when we turn those components up or down.

Young AR, Locke MC, Cook LE, Hiller BE, Zhang R, Hedberg ML, Monte KJ, Veis DJ, Diamond MS, Lenschow DJ. Dermal and muscle fibroblasts and skeletal myofibers survive chikungunya virus infection and harbor persistent RNA. PLOS Pathogens. Aug. 29, 2019. DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1007993

This study was supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, grant number T32 GM007067; the National Institute of Health (NIH), grant numbers T32 CA009547, R01 AR070030, R21 AR073507, R01 AI143673, R01AI123348, R01 A1127513 and R21 A1135490; and Shriners Hospitals for Children – St. Louis, grant number 85117.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 1,500 faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is a leader in medical research, teaching and patient care, ranking among the top 10 medical schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Tamara covers infectious diseases, molecular microbiology, neurology, neuroscience, surgery, the Institute for Informatics, the Division of Physician-Scientists and the MSTP program. She holds a double bachelor's degree in molecular biophysics & biochemistry and in sociology from Yale University, a master's in public health from the University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD in biomedical science from the University of California, San Diego. She joined WashU Medicine Marketing & Communications in 2016. She has received three Robert G. Fenley writing awards from the American Association of Medical Colleges: a bronze in 2020 for "Mind’s quality control center found in long-ignored brain area," a silver in 2022 for "Mice with hallucination-like behaviors reveal insight into psychotic illness," and a bronze in 2023 for "Race of people given Alzheimer’s blood tests may affect interpretation of results." Since January of 2024, Tamara has been writing under the name Tamara Schneider.