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Health, Science & Tech

Pitt Study Sheds New Light On Debilitating Virus

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A virus that can cause brain damage lies dormant in more than half the population and scientists are working to eradicate it before it can debilitate our unborn children. It sounds like a movie plot, but it isn’t. In fact, it has already inside us and a new study shows certain cells are resistant to the virus.

Human cytomegalovirus, or HCMV, infects between 50 and 80 percent of people in the U.S. by the time they are 40. If you are otherwise healthy, you might never know you have it, but if it gets passed to a developing fetus it can lead to intellectual disability, blindness, hearing loss, and seizures after birth.

Vishwajit Nimgaonkar, a human genetics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said that is why most pregnant women are tested for the virus.   

“About one to two per thousand live births in this country have a sort of damage due to this virus, and that’s the reason that people are very concerned about this infection.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of every 150 children is born with HCMV and one of every five of those infected develops problems.

Since the virus is predominantly centered in the brain, Nimgaonkar said it has been a challenge to find ways to test for HCMV. With improvements in technology however, he said substantial advances have been made.

“The problem is that it has been very hard to grow brain neurons, you know, from human beings,” he said. “And therefore it has been very hard to test the effects of this virus on neurons from human beings. And what we were able to do was to use the technology that has become very popular recently, in which you can take [human] skin cells, what are called fibroblasts, and you can then transform them into stem cells.”

Nimgaonkar said his lab then runs experiments on these stem cells as they become neurons.  What he found is that the stem cells are resistant to the virus but are negatively impacted as they become brain cells.

The goal is to ultimately find a way to fight the virus before it impacts the developing child.  “What we hope to do is to use these data to develop better assays in the Petri dish and then screen new compounds to see whether they’re effective against the virus.”

He added though, that new medications to fight the infection are years away from being developed.