Areas with CWDChronic wasting disease (CWD) is a prion disease of cervids (deer, elk, moose). It was first detected in Wyoming and Colorado, and has since spread rapidly throughout North America (illustrated; image credit). Because prions that cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, mad cow disease) are known to infect humans, there is concern that CWD might also cross the species barrier and cause a novel spongiform encephalopathy. Recent experimental results suggest that CWD prions are not likely to directly infect humans.

The prion protein PrPC is encoded by the prnp gene, which is essential for the pathogenesis of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). Transgenic mice have been used to understand the species barrier to prion transmission. When mice are inoculated with human prions, few animals develop disease and the incubation periods are over 500 days. When the mouse prnp gene is replaced with the human gene, the mice become uniformly susceptible to infection with human prions and the incubation period is shorter. The species barrier to prion transmission is therefore associated with differences in the prion protein sequence between host and target species.

Mice have been used to understand whether CWD prions might be transmitted to humans. Mice are not efficiently infected with CWD prions unless they are made transgenic for the cervid prnp gene. Four different research groups have found that  mice transgenic for the human prnp gene are not infected by CWD prions. These findings suggest that CWD prions are not likely to be transmitted directly to humans. However, changing four amino acids in human prnp to the cervid sequence allows efficient infection of transgenic mice with cervid prions.

Another concern is that prions of chronic wasting disease could be transmitted to cows grazing in pastures contaminated by cervids. Prions can be detected in deer saliva and feces, and contamination of grass could pass the agent on to cows. In the laboratory, brain homogenates from infected deer can transmit the disease to cows. Therefore it is possible that cervid prions could enter the human food chain through cows.

A further worry is that BSE prions shed by cows in pastures might infect cervids, which would then become a reservoir of the agent. BSE prions do not infect mice that are transgenic for the cervid prnp gene. However, intracerebral inoculation of deer with BSE prions causes neurological disease,  and the prions from these animals can infect mice that are transgenic for the cervid prnp gene. Therefore caution must be used when using transgenic mice to predict the abilities of prions to cross species barriers.

Although the risk of human infection with CWD prions appears to be low, hunters should not shoot or consume an elk or deer that is acting abnormally or appears to be sick, to avoid the brain and spinal cord when field dressing game, and not to consume brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, or lymph nodes. No case of transmission of chronic wasting disease prions to deer hunters has yet been reported.

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On episode #327 of the science show This Week in Virology, the eTWiVicators review evidence that the HIV-1 group O epidemic began with a single cross-species transmission of virus from western lowland gorillas.

You can find TWiV #327 at

poliovirus + receptorWe recently discussed the development of a soluble receptor for HIV-1 that provides broad and effective protection against infection of cells and of nonhuman primates. Twenty-five years ago my laboratory published a paper which concluded that using soluble receptors to block virus infection might not be a good idea. In the first paragraph of that paper we wrote:

…it has been proposed that soluble cell receptors might be effective antiviral therapeutics. It has been suggested that mutants resistant to the antiviral effects of soluble receptors would not arise, because mutations that abrogate binding to receptors would be lethal.

We had previously shown that the cell receptor for poliovirus, CD155, produced in a soluble form, would bind to poliovirus (pictured – the very image from the banner of this blog), blocking viral infection. We then found that it was relatively easy to select for soluble receptor resistant (srr) virus mutants. These viruses still enter cells by binding to CD155, but the affinity of virus for the receptor is reduced. Poliovirus srr mutants replicate normally in cell cultures, and cause paralysis in a mouse model for poliomyelitis. We speculated that receptor binding might not be a rate-limiting step in viral infection, and short of  abolishing binding, the virus can tolerate a wide range of binding capabilities.

The amino acid changes that cause the srr phenotype map to both the exterior and the interior of the viral capsid. The changes on the virion surface are likely to directly interact with the cell receptor. Changes in the interior of the virus particle may be involved in receptor-mediated conformational transitions that are believed to be essential steps in viral entry.

When this work was done, clinical trials of soluble CD4 for HIV-1 infection were under way. We believed that our findings did not support the use of soluble receptors as antivirals, which we clearly stated in the last sentence of the paper:

These findings temper the use of soluble receptors as antiviral compounds.

HIV-1 mutants resistant to neutralization with soluble CD4 were subsequently isolated, and the compound was never approved to treat HIV-1 infection in humans for this and other reasons, including low affinity for the viral glycoprotein, enhancement of infection, and problems associated with using a protein as a therapeutic.

Recently a new soluble CD4 was produced which also includes the viral binding site for a second cell receptor, CCR5. This molecule overcomes many of the issues inherent in the original soluble CD4. It provides broad protection against a wide range of HIV-1 strains, and when delivered via an adenovirus-associated virus vector, protects nonhuman primates from infection. This delivery method circumvents the issues inherent in using a protein as an antiviral drug. Because this protein blocks both receptor binding sites on the viral envelope glycoprotein, it might be more difficult for viruses to emerge that are resistant to neutralization. The authors speculate that such mutants might not be efficiently transmitted among hosts due to defects in cell entry. Given the promising results with this antiviral compound, experiments to test this speculation are certainly welcome.


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

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

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

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!