TWiV 267: Snow in the headlights

On episode #267 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent, Alan, Rich and Kathy review a protease essential for influenza pathogenesis in mice, and directionality of rhinovirus RNA exit from the capsid.

You can find TWiV #267 at

TWiV 262: Wrong form, right professor

On episode #262 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent returns to the University of Wisconsin – Madison to speak with Ann Palmenberg about her career in virology.

You can find TWiV #262 at

TWiV 243: Live from ASV at Penn State

On this episode of the science show This Week in Virology, which was recorded before a large enthusiastic audience at the annual meeting of the American Society for Virology, Vincent, Rich, and Kathy speak with Rebecca and Christiane about their work on metapneumoviruses and noroviruses.

You can find TWiV #243 at

TWiV 237: Paleovirology with Michael Emerman

Episode #237 of the science show This Week in Virology was recorded at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA, where Vincent and Rich met up with Michael to talk about his work on the molecular and evolutionary basis of HIV replication and pathogenesis.

You can find TWiV #237 at

Inefficient influenza H7N9 virus aerosol transmission among ferrets

ferretThere have been 131 confirmed human infections with avian influenza H7N9 virus in China, but so far there is little evidence for human to human transmission. Three out of four patients report exposure to animals, ‘mostly chickens‘, suggesting that most of the infections are zoonoses. Whether or not the virus will evolve to transmit among humans is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile it has been found that one of the H7N9 virus isolates from Shanghai can transmit by aerosol among ferrets, albeit inefficiently.

Ferrets were inoculated intranasally with influenza A/Shanghai/02/2013 virus or A/California/07/2009, the 2009 pandemic H1N1 virus. One to two days later the ferrets developed fever, sneezing, coughing, and nasal discharge; both viruses induced similar clinical signs. Virus was shed in nasal secretions for 7 days. Six infected ferrets were then divided among three separate cages, and each group was housed with a naive ferret, and a second uninfected animal was placed in an adjacent cage. Airflow was controlled so that air flowed from the cage of infected animals towards the cage of naive animals. Transmission of infection was measured by observing clinical signs, and measuring virus shedding in nasal secretions and hemagglutination-inhibition antibodies in serum.

Of the three ferrets housed in the same cage with H7N9 virius-infected animals, all three had signs of infection (sneeze, cough, nasal discharge), shed virus in nasal secretions, and developed anti-HA antibodies. All three ferrets in neighboring cages developed signs of infection, but only one shed virus in nasal secretions, and two of three seroconverted. From these data the authors conclude that H7N9 virus is ‘efficiently transmitted between ferrets by direct contact, but less efficiently by airborne exposure’. In contrast, transmission of H1N1 virus to naive ferrets by contact or aerosol was efficient (3/3 animals in both cases).

The authors also found that pigs could be infected intranasally with A/Shanghai/02/2013 virus: the animals shed virus in nasal secretions and developed clinical symptoms. However the infected pigs transmitted infection inefficiently to other pigs by contact or aerosol, or to ferrets by aerosol.

The  authors’ equivocal conclusion that “Under appropriate conditions human to human transmission of the H7N9 virus may be possible” could have been reached even before these experiments were done. Their results provide no information on whether the virus can undergo human to human transmission because animal models are not definitive predictors of what might occur in humans. I disagree with the authors’ statement on page 5, “Efficient transmission of influenza viruses in ferrets is considered as a predictor of human to human transmissibility’. While many influenza virus strains that transmit among humans by aerosol also do so in ferrets, this does not mean that human transmission of a novel virus can be predicted by animal experiments.

Infection of ferrets with A/Shanghai/02/2013 or or A/California/07/2009 virus results in mild disease with no mortality. In contrast, 32 humans infected with H7N9 virus have died, and many humans have died after H1N1 infection. These findings further emphasize the differences in influenza virus pathogenesis in ferrets and humans.

TWiV 226: Taking the viral A train with Terry Dermody

On episode #226 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent and Dickson speak with Terry Dermody about his career in medicine and virology.

You can find TWiV #226 at

A virology course for all

Virology class 2013The spring semester has begun at Columbia University, which means that it is time to teach my virology course.

The fourth annual installment of my virology course, Biology W3310, has begun. This course, which I taught for the first time in 2009, is intended for advanced undergraduates and convenes at the Morningside Campus. Until I started this course, no instruction in virology had been offered at the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University since the late 1980s. This is a serious omission for a first-class University. Sending graduates into the world without even a fundamental understanding of viruses and viral disease is inexcusable.

Course enrollment has steadily increased: 45 students in the 2009, 66 students in 2010, 87 students in 2012 and an amazing 195 students this year. I am gratified that so many students want to learn about the world of viruses. This year our class was moved into a wonderful lecture hall in the brand-new Northwest Corner building.

Readers of virology blog can watch every lecture in the course. You will find a videocast of each lecture at the course website, at my YouTube channel, and at iTunes University. The complete 2012 version of this course is available online, at iTunes University, and YouTube.

This year we will also be offering my virology course at Coursera. Details will be forthcoming.

To those who would like to know if the 2013 version of my course differs from the 2012 version, I reply: do viruses change? Some parts will be the same, others will be different. The goal of my virology course is to provide an understanding of how viruses are built, how they replicate and evolve, how they cause disease, and how to prevent infection. After taking the course, some of the students might want to become virologists. The course will also provide the knowledge required to make informed decisions about health issues such as immunization against viral infections. It should also be possible to spot badly constructed headlines about virology stories.

I am excited about teaching virology to 195 Columbia University students this year. But the internet makes it possible to spread the word even further. So far nearly 75,000 students registered for the iTunes University version of my 2012 virology course! As a professor used to teaching relatively small numbers of students in a classroom, this reach is truly amazing.

Virology lecture: Picornaviruses

I was scheduled to deliver a lecture on picornaviruses to a virology class at Yale University this week, but had to cancel at the last minute. I prepared this screencast to make up for my absence.

The Picornaviridae is a family of non-enveloped, positive-strand RNA viruses which contains some well known viruses including poliovirus, rhinovirus, hepatitis A virus, enterovirus 71, and foot-and-mouth disease virus. In this lecture I cover basic aspects of picornavirus replication and pathogenesis, including attachment and entry, translation and protein processing, RNA synthesis, assembly and release, disease and immunization.

How lethal is rabies virus?

Desmodus rotundusWhen I am asked to name the most lethal human virus, I never hesitate to name rabies virus. Infection with this virus is almost invariably fatal; just three unvaccinated individuals have been known to survive. New evidence from humans in the Peruvian Amazon suggests that the virus might be less lethal than previously believed.

Rabies virus is typically transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected mammal, often a carnivore or a bat. Recently there have been numerous outbreaks of rabies in Peru that have been linked to bites of vampire bats. A study of two communities at risk for vampire bat bites was undertaken to determine whether subclinical infection with rabies virus might occur. Over half of 92 individuals interviewed reported having been bitten by bats. Neutralizing antibodies against rabies virus were detected in 7 of 63 serum samples obtained from this population. Antibodies against the viral nucleoprotein were found in three individuals, two of whom were also positive for viral neutralizing antibodies. All 9 seropositive individuals indicated that they had previously had contact with a bat (a bite, scratch, or direct contact with unprotected skin). One of these individuals had previously received rabies vaccine.

The finding of neutralizing antibodies against rabies virus suggests that these individuals were likely infected, but did not develop fatal disease. It is also possible that they received a sufficiently large dose of virus to induce antibodies, but that viral replication did not occur. Another explanation for the findings is that these individuals were infected with an unknown virus that is highly related to rabies virus, but which is not pathogenic for humans.

There have been numerous seroprevalence studies of rabies infection in wildlife. For example, foxes and other canids have low (0-5%) seroprevalence rates, while 5-50% of bats can harbor rabies neutralizing antibodies, indicating that these animals are less susceptible to fatal rabies. In contrast, there have been few studies on rabies seroprevalence in humans. In one study of 30 raccoon hunters in Florida, low levels of rabies virus neutralizing antibodies were found in 2 samples. Low neutralizing antibody titers were also detected in 9 of 31 Canadian Inuit hunters; in a separate study, high rabies antibody titers were detected in the serum of 1 of 26 Alaskan fox trappers. All of these individuals had not been immunized with rabies virus vaccine.

Rabies virus causes 55,000 human deaths each year, so even if the results of the Peruvian study indicate subclinical infection, they would have little impact on the nearly 100% fatality rate associated with infection. More extensive studies are needed to determine if nonfatal human rabies infection is more common than believed. Understanding why some individuals do not die after infection might reveal immunological and genetic factors that protect against the disease.

Amy T. Gilbert, Brett W. Petersen, Sergio Recuenco, Michael Niezgoda, Jorge Gómez, V. Alberto Laguna-Torres and Charles Rupprecht. Evidence of Rabies Virus Exposure among Humans in the Peruvian Amazon. Am. J. Trop. Med. Hyg. 87:206 (2012).


How lethal is ebolavirus?

Should we fear avian H5N1 influenza?

Transgenic mice susceptible to poliovirus

pvr transgenic mouseYesterday I terminated the last remaining mice in my small colony, including the line of poliovirus receptor transgenic mice that we established here in 1990. Remarkably, I had never written about this animal model for poliomyelitis which has played an important role in the work done in my laboratory.

While I was still working on poliovirus as a postdoctoral fellow with David Baltimore, I became interested in how the virus causes disease. There were no convenient animal models to study poliovirus pathogenesis, so I began to think about the cellular receptor for the virus and how it could be used to make a mouse model for infection. When I moved to Columbia University Medical Center in 1982, I decided to identify the cellular gene for the poliovirus receptor. This work was carried out by the second graduate student in my lab, Cathy Mendelsohn. She identified a gene from human cells that encoded a protein which we believed to be the cellular receptor for poliovirus. When this human gene was expressed in mouse cells, it madepvr model them susceptible* to poliovirus infection (the mouse cells were already permissive for poliovirus replication). The gene encodes a transmembrane glycoprotein (illustrated) that we called the poliovirus receptor (PVR), later renamed CD155. Over the years we worked extensively on PVR, with the goals of understanding its interaction with poliovirus during entry into the cell. In one project we collaborated with Jim Hogle, David Belnap, and Alasdair Steven to solve the structure of poliovirus bound to a soluble form of PVR. The image of that complex decorates the banner at virology blog and

Shortly after identifying PVR as the cellular receptor for poliovirus, a new student, Ruibao Ren, joined my lab. For his project I suggested he create transgenic mice with the human gene for PVR. We already knew that synthesis of PVR in mouse cells allowed the complete poliovirus replication cycle. Together with Frank Costantini and JJ Lee, Ruibao produced PVR transgenic mice and showed that they were susceptible to poliovirus infection. The illustration at top left shows a PVR transgenic mouse with a paralyzed left hind limb after poliovirus inoculation.

Poliovirus transgenic mice were used for many years in my laboratory to study how the virus causes disease, and to identify the mutations that attenuate the neurovirulence of the Sabin vaccine strains. A good summary of this work can be found in my review, ‘One hundred years of poliovirus pathogenesis‘. But there is a dark side of this story that I wish to briefly recount. When we first developed PVR transgenic mice, my employer decided to patent the animals. Until the patent issued, we could not share the transgenic mice with other researchers. As a consequence, others developed their own lines of PVR transgenic mice. One of these lines has been qualified by the World Health Organization to determine the neurovirulence of the Sabin vaccine strains. However, Columbia University realized little income from the PVR transgenic mice – such animals cannot be patented in Europe. By patenting the mice, we simply delayed research progress. Because of this experience I am personally very wary about patenting biological discoveries.

There are several reasons why I decided to stop doing research with mice. The cost of housing and breeding mice is very high, nearly $1.00 US per cage per day, and I simply don’t have the funds to support such work. More importantly, no one in my laboratory has any interest in working with mice: the last student to do mouse work left years ago. Although there are many interesting experiments to be done using viruses and mice, that line of work ended for the Racaniello lab on 11 July 2011.

*A susceptible cell bears the receptor for the virus; a permissive cell allows viral replication. A susceptible and permissive cell allows the complete viral replication cycle.

 Ren, R., Costantini, F., Gorgacz, E., Lee, J., & Racaniello, V. (1990). Transgenic mice expressing a human poliovirus receptor: A new model for poliomyelitis Cell, 63 (2), 353-362 DOI: 10.1016/0092-8674(90)90168-E