Scientists Discover Hantavirus Mechanism
ALBUQUERQUE – A group of researchers has discovered a mechanism that helps protect deer mice from hantavirus even though the rodents carry the life-threatening disease.
The research could pave the way for new therapies for treating hantavirus and other so-called zoonotic diseases transmitted to humans by animals – a huge class that includes SARS, rabies, influenza and AIDS.
“We are blessed with the fact that many zoonotic diseases have hosts” that are immune to ill effects of the disease, said University of New Mexico researcher Dr. Brian Hjelle.
The key is studying creatures in the wild to discover how they protect themselves from the diseases that ravage humans, he said.
Hjelle and researchers at the University of Northern Colorado had their findings published last month in the online edition of “The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”
The research began with the question: “Why don’t deer mice get hantavirus disease.”
Deer mice carry the “sin nombre” virus, the form of hantavirus that causes virtually all human deaths in the United States.
Hantavirus does its damage by exciting the body’s own immune system to the extent that it attacks the victim’s lungs and blood vessels. If left untreated, Hjelle said the disease kills about 40 percent of the people it infects.
“People die when the immune response hits its peak,” he said.
But deer mice have developed a mechanism that moderates the harmful response, Hjelle said.
The mice make a protein called transforming growth factor beta, a powerful inflammatory molecule that inhibits the immune response, Hjelle said.
The research points to treatments that could suppress the immune response in humans, said Tony Schoutz, a University of Northern Colorado biologist and co-author of the study.
Clinical studies could begin as early as next year to determine if the TGF beta has therapeutic value in another rodent species.
More than 120 people in New Mexico and Colorado have developed life-threatening cases of hantavirus disease since an initial outbreak in 1993 in the Four Corners area. It has resulted in 31 New Mexico deaths.
Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com