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Lenschow named Pew Innovation Fund Investigator

Will study how chikungunya virus causes chronic disease

September 22, 2021

Deborah J. Lenschow, MD, PhD, a professor of medicine, of molecular microbiology, and of pathology & immunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has been named an Innovation Fund Investigator by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

She will partner with Gabrielle Kardon, PhD, of the University of Utah, to study how the chikungunya virus, a mosquito-borne pathogen that causes fever, rash and arthritis in people, leads to chronic and persistent symptoms even after infection subsides. Lenschow and Kardon make up one of six teams of Innovation Fund Investigators selected to undertake interdisciplinary research tackling some of the most pressing questions in human biology and disease.

Scientists have found that viral RNA from chikungunya can be detected weeks after infection, despite the absence of a replicating virus. Up to 60% of afflicted patients develop long-term muscle pain, joint pain, and fatigue. Muscles and connective tissues are known to harbor persistent viral RNA and therefore may be the source of chronic symptoms, but it’s not clear how muscle structure may be altered by the lingering viral genetic material and contribute to ongoing symptoms.

Combining expertise in viral immunology and muscle biology, Lenschow and Kardon will investigate how residual chikungunya viral RNA changes cellular gene expression to cause structural muscle damage, as well as which specific cell types contribute to deterioration. This effort could provide insight into the mechanisms underlying chronic chikungunya symptoms and may lead to a better understanding of how other infections with other viruses lead to chronic symptoms, including the long-haul symptoms resulting from the novel coronavirus.