Chicken pox is a common and usually mild viral childhood disease. However, the virus that causes it, varicella zoster (VZV), remains within in a latent, or “sleeping” state in nerve cells.
In many older people, or those with weakened immune systems (i.e. transplants, accidents or HIV infection), the virus “wakes up” and causes the painful disease known as “shingles” or herpes zoster.
For many, the pain of shingles becomes severe and lasts long after the rash is gone (post-herpetic neuralgia), causing depression, lack of sleep and general loss in quality of life. There exists a vaccine for shingles, but it only protects 50% of those who are vaccinated, and can not be given to patients whose immune system is not functioning correctly (i.e. transplant recipients). Since VZV only grows well in human cells and until now, very limited amounts of human nerve cells (from aborted fetuses or cadavers) have been available for experimentation.
We have developed a model for study of infection of nerve cells by this virus using nerve cells made from human stem cells. This project is the continuation of an ongoing productive collaboration funded by US NIH and Israel Academy of Sciences between Prof Goldstein, an expert in generating neurons from stem cells, and an American expert in VZV and genetic engineering of the virus at Univ. Pittsburgh Med School. Most recently, we have developed a model that allows latent infection and reactivation of VZV, that is, a model for shingles. This model should allow development of safer vaccines and new treatments for this painful and debilitating disease.
Current work in the lab include study of the molecular mechanisms responsible for VZV latency and reactivation, viral entry and viral transport in human nerve cells.