On episode #326 of the science show This Week in Virology, the sternutating TWiVers discuss preventing infection of cells and animals by a soluble CD4-CCR5 molecule that binds to HIV-1 virus particles.

You can find TWiV #326 at www.twiv.tv.

eCD4-FcBecause viruses must bind to cell surface molecules to initiate replication, the use of soluble receptors to block virus infection has long been an attractive therapeutic option. Soluble receptors have been developed that block infection with rhinoviruses and HIV-1, but these have not been licensed due to their suboptimal potency. A newly designed soluble receptor for HIV-1 overcomes this problem and provides broad and effective protection against infection of cells and of nonhuman primates.

Infection with HIV-1 requires two cell surface molecules, CD4 and a chemokine receptor (either CCR5 or CXCR4), which are engaged by the viral glycoprotein gp120 (illustrated). A soluble form of CD4 fused to an antibody molecule can block infection of most viral isolates, and has been shown to be safe in humans, but its affinity for gp120 is low. Similarly, peptide mimics of the CCR5 co-receptor have been shown to block infection, but their affinity for gp120 is also low.

Combining the two gp120-binding molecules solved the problem of low affinity, and in addition provided protection against a wide range of virus isolates. The entry inhibitor, called eCD4-Ig, is a fusion of the first two domains of CD4 to the Fc domain of an antibody molecule, with the CCR5-mimicking peptide at the carboxy-terminus (illustrated). It binds strongly to gp120, and blocks infection with many different isolates of HIV-1, HIV-2, SIV, and HIV-1 resistant to broadly neutralizing monoclonal antibodies. The molecule blocks viral infection at concentrations that might be achieved in humans (1.5 – 5.2 micrograms per milliliter).

When administered to mice, eCD4-Ig protected the animals from HIV-1. Rhesus macaques inoculated with an adenovirus-associated virus (AAV) recombinant containing the gene for eCD4-Ig were protected from infection with large amounts of virus for up to 34 weeks after immunization. Levels of eCD4-Ig in the sera of these animals ranged from 17 – 77 micrograms per milliliter.

These results show that eCD4-Ig blocks HIV infection with a wide range of isolates more effectively than previously studied broadly neutralizing antibodies. Emergence of HIV variants resistant to neutralization with eCD4-Ig would likely produce viruses that infect cells less efficiently, reducing their transmission. eCD4-Ig is therefore an attractive candidate for therapy of HIV-1 infections. Whether sustained production of the protein in humans will cause disease remains to be determined. Because expression of the AAV genome persists for long periods, it might be advantageous to include a kill-switch in the vector: a way of turning it off if something should go wrong.


TWiV 325: Wildcats go viral

22 February 2015

On episode #325 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent visits the ‘Little Apple’ and speaks with Rollie and Lorena about their work on mosquito-born viruses and baculoviruses.

You can find TWiV #325 at www.twiv.tv.

sneezeAn otherwise balanced review of selected aspects of Ebolavirus transmission falls apart when the authors hypothesize that ‘Ebola viruses have the potential to be respiratory pathogens with primary respiratory spread.’

The idea that Ebolavirus might become transmitted by the respiratory route was suggested last year by Michael Osterholm in a Times OpEd. That idea was widely criticized by many virologists, including this writer.  Now he has recruited 20 other authors, including Ebola virologists, in an attempt to lend legitimacy to his hypothesis. Unfortunately the new article adds no new evidence to support this view.

In the last section of the review article the authors admit that they have no evidence for respiratory transmission of Ebolavirus:

It is very likely that at least some degree of Ebola virus transmission currently occurs via infectious aerosols generated from the gastrointestinal tract, the respiratory tract, or medical procedures, although this has been difficult to definitively demonstrate or rule out, since those exposed to infectious aerosols also are most likely to be in close proximity to and in direct contact with an infected case.

It is possible that some short-distance transmission of Ebolavirus occurs through the air. But claiming that it is ‘very likely’ to be taking place is an overstatement considering the lack of evidence. As might be expected, ‘very likely’ is exactly the phrase picked up by the Washington Post.

I find the lack of critical thinking in the following paragraph even more disturbing:

To date, investigators have not identified respiratory spread (either via large droplets or small-particle aerosols) of Ebola viruses among humans. This could be because such transmission does not occur or because such transmission has not been recognized, since the number of studies that have carefully examined transmission patterns is small. Despite the lack of supportive epidemiological data, a key additional question to ask is whether primary pulmonary infections and respiratory transmission of Ebola viruses could be a potential scenario for the future.

Why is the possibility of respiratory transmission of Ebolaviruses a ‘key additional question’ when there has been no evidence for it to date? To make matters worse, the authors have now moved from short-range transmission of the virus by droplets, to full-blown respiratory aerosol transmission.

The authors present a list of reasons why they think Ebolavirus could go airborne, including: isolation of Ebolaviruses from saliva; presence of viral particles in pulmonary alveoli on human autopsies; and cough, which can generate aerosols, can be a symptom of Ebolavirus disease. The authors conclude that because of these properties, the virus would not have to change very much to be transmitted by aerosols.

I would conclude the opposite from this list of what Ebolavirus can do: there is clearly a substantial block to respiratory transmission that the virus cannot overcome. Perhaps the virus is not stable enough in respiratory aerosols, or there are not enough infectious viruses in aerosols to transmit infection from human to human. Overcoming these blocks might simply not be biologically possible for Ebolavirus. A thoughtful discussion of these issues is glaringly absent in the review.

The conclusion that Ebolavirus is  ‘close’ to becoming a full-blown respiratory pathogen reveals how little we understand about the genetic requirements for virus transmission. In fact the authors cannot have any idea how ‘close’ Ebolavirus is to spreading long distances through the air.

It is always difficult to predict what viruses will or will not do. Instead, virologists observe what viruses have done in the past, and use that information to guide their thinking. If we ask the simple question, has any human virus ever changed its mode of transmission, the answer is no. We have been studying viruses for over 100 years, and we’ve never seen a human virus change the way it is transmitted. There is no evidence to believe that Ebolavirus is any different.

Viruses are masters of evolution, but apparently one item lacking from their repertoire is the ability to change the way that they are transmitted.

Such unfounded speculation would largely be ignored if the paper were read only by microbiologists. But Ebolavirus is always news and even speculation does not go unnoticed. The Washington Post seems to think that this review article is a big deal. Here is their headline: Limited airborne transmission of Ebola is ‘very likely’ new analysis says.

Gary Kobinger, one of the authors, told the Washington Post that ‘we hope that this review will stimulate interest and motivate more support and more scientists to join in and help address gaps in our knowledge on transmission of Ebola’. Such hope is unrealistic, because few can work on this virus, which requires the highest levels of biological containment, a BSL-4 laboratory.

I wonder if Osterholm endorses Kobinger’s hopes. After all, he opposed studies of influenza virus transmission in ferrets, claiming that they are too dangerous. And the current moratorium on research that would help us understand aerosol transmission of influenza viruses is a direct result of objections by Osterholm and his colleagues about this type of work. The genetic experiments that are clearly needed to understand the limitations of Ebolavirus transmission would never be permitted, at least not with United States research dollars.

The gaps in our understanding of virus transmission are considerable. If virologists are not able to carry out the necessary experiments to fill these gaps, all we will have is rampant and unproductive speculation.


paramyxovirus fusionThe entry of enveloped viruses into cells begins when the membrane that surrounds these virus particles fuse with a cell membrane. The process of virus-cell fusion must be tightly regulated, to make sure it happens in the right cells. The fusion activity of measles viruses isolated from the brains of AIDS patients is not properly regulated, which might explain why these viruses cause disease in the central nervous system.

Measles virus particles bind to cell surface receptors via the viral glycoprotein HN (illustrated). Once the viral and cell membranes have been brought together by this receptor-ligand interaction, fusion is induced by a second viral glycoprotein called F, and the viral RNA is released into the cell cytoplasm. The N-terminal 20 amino acids of F protein are highly hydrophobic and form a region called the fusion peptide that inserts into target membranes to initiate fusion. Because F-protein-mediated fusion can occur at neutral pH, it must be controlled, to ensure that virus particles fuse with only the appropriate cell, and to prevent aggregation of newly made virions. The fusion peptide of F is normally hidden, and conformational changes in the protein thrust the it toward the cell membrane (illustrated). These conformational changes in the F protein, which expose the fusion peptide, are thought to occur upon binding of HN protein to its cellular receptor.

During a recent outbreak of measles in South Africa, several AIDS patients died when measles virus entered and replicated in their central nervous systems. Measles virus normally enters via the respiratory route, establishes a viremia (and the characteristic rash) and is cleared within two weeks. The virus is known to enter the brain in up to half of infected patients, but without serious sequelae. The measles inclusion body encephalitis observed in these AIDS patients typically occurs in immunosuppressed individuals several months after infection with measles virus.

Measles virus isolated postmortem from these two individuals had a single amino acid change in the F glycoprotein, from leucine to tryptophan at position 454. This single amino acid change allowed viruses to fuse with cell membranes without having to first bind a cellular receptor via the HN glycoprotein. In other words, the normal mechanism for regulating measles virus fusion – binding a cell receptor – was bypassed in these viruses. This unusual property might have allowed measles virus to spread throughout the central nervous system, causing lethal disease.

How did these mutant viruses arise in the AIDS patients? Because these individuals had impaired immunity as a result of HIV-1 infection, they were not able to clear the virus in the usual two weeks. As a consequence, the virus replicated for several months. During this time, the mutation might have arisen that allowed unregulated fusion of virus and cell, leading to unchecked replication in the brain. Alternatively, the mutation might have been present in virus that infected these individuals, and was selected in the central nervous system.

An interesting question is whether these neurotropic measles viruses can be transmitted by aerosol between hosts – a rather unsettling scenario. Fortunately, we do have a measles virus vaccine that effectively prevents infection, even with these mutant viruses.


On episode #324 of the science show This Week in Virology, Lee joins the TWiV team to discuss the value of post-doctoral training, and how a cellular microRNA assists in the replication of hepatitis C virus.

You can find TWiV #324 at www.twiv.tv.

What does transfection mean?

12 February 2015

infectious poliovirus dnaI have always had a problem with the use of the word transfection to mean anything other than the introduction of viral DNA into cells (illustrated for poliovirus). An examination of the origins of the word suggests that such use might be acceptable.

The introduction of foreign DNA into cells is called DNA-mediated transformation to distinguish it from the oncogenic transformation of cells caused by tumor viruses and other insults. The term transfection (transformation-infection) was coined to describe the production of infectious virus after transformation of cells by viral DNA, first demonstrated with bacteriophage lambda. Unfortunately, transfection is now routinely used to describe the introduction of any DNA or RNA into cells.

If you view the English language as a dynamic means of communication that continually evolves and provides words with new meanings, then this incorrect use of transfection probably does not bother you. But scientists must be precise in their use of language, otherwise their ability to communicate will be impaired. This is why the use of transfection to mean anything other than introduction of viral DNA into cells is a bad idea. I do understand that transfection is much easier to write or speak than DNA-mediated transformation, but surely that cannot be an excuse for warping a word’s meaning.

The misuse of transfection bothers me so much, that whenever I see the term, I inspect the usage to see if it is incorrect. Recently after seeing another improper use of the word, I decided to look up its roots. What I found made me reconsider my angst about transfection.

The word ‘trans’ can mean across or through. The word infection, from which the -fection in transfection is derived, comes from the Latin verb inficere: from in (into) + facere (put, do). From this analysis we can determine that transfection means across-put. That is not a bad definition of what transfection has come to mean: put DNA across a membrane into the cell.

I am certainly not a student of etymology, but it seems to me that without knowing it, those who used transfection in the wrong way were actually correct in their usage. I no longer need fret about how transfection is used!


Jason Roberts, a virologist at the Victorian Infectious Disease Reference Laboratory in Melbourne, Australia, creates three-dimensional simulations of viruses showing how the molecules that make up the capsid and genome might move in very short periods of time. I visited Jason in his laboratory at the newly constructed Peter Doherty Institute, to learn how he develops these simulations. Then I toured the Peak Computing Facility, which houses the supercomputer that calculates Jason’s simulations.


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On episode #323 of the science show This Week in Virology, the family TWiVidae discuss changes in the human fecal virome associated with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

You can find TWiV #323 at www.twiv.tv.

prion conversionThe human prion disease, Creutzfeld-Jacob, is diagnosed by a variety of criteria, including clinical features, electroencephalograms, and magnetic resonance imaging. Until recently there was no non-invasive assay to detect PrPSc, the only specific marker for the disease. This challenge has been overcome using amplification procedures to detect Creutzfeldt-Jakob prions in nasal brushings and in urine.

These assays utilize two different methods for amplifying the quantity of prions in vitro. In real-time quaking-induced conversion, PrPC (produced in E. coli) is mixed with a small amount of PrPSc. The mixtures are subjected to cycles of shaking and rest at 42°C for 55-90 hours, which leads to the formation of amyloid fibrils that can be detected by fluorescence. The assay can detect femtogram levels of PrPSc in brain homogenates from humans with Creutzfeld-Jacob disease. In protein misfolding cyclic amplification, samples are incubated for 30 minutes at 37°- 40°C, followed by a pulse of sonication, and this cycle is repeated 96 times. Prions are detected by western blot analysis after treatment with proteinase K. This process can detect a single oligomeric PrPSC.

Two non-invasive assays using these amplification approaches were developed. The first is a nasal-brushing procedure to sample the olfactory epithelium, where PrPSc is known to accumulate in patients with the disease. The real-time quaking-induced conversion assay was positive in 30 of 31 patients with Creutzfeld-Jacob disease, and negative in 43 of 43 healthy controls (a sensitivity of 97%). Furthermore, nasal brushings gave stronger and faster positive results than cerebrospinal fluid in this assay. The high concentrations of PrPSc detected in nasal brushings suggest that prions can contaminate nasal discharge of patients with the disease, a possible source of iatrogenic transmission, which has implications for infection control.

Protein misfolding cyclic amplification was used to assay for the presence of PrPSc in the urine of patients with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (caused by ingestion of beef from cows with bovine spongiform encephalopathy), which had been previously shown to contain prions. PrPSc was detected in 13 of 14 urine samples from patients with the disease, but not in 224 urine samples from healthy controls and patients with other neurologic diseases, including other TSEs. The estimated concentration of PrPSc in urine was 40-100 oligomeric particles per ml.

Because Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is so rare, any assay for the disease must have near-perfect specificity. A problem with both cycling assays is that PrPC converts into oligomers and fibrils in the absence of PrPSc. Additional work is needed to address this problem. Nevertheless it is possible that these assays could one day lead to earlier diagnosis and treatments, if the latter become available.