Published online 20 June 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.907

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Measles doesn't work in the way we thought

Virus attacks the immune system, not the airways.

measles virusDoctors will have to revise their view of exactly how the measles virus attacks.ALFRED PASIEKA / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

The infectious romp that the measles virus takes through the body doesn’t need to involve the airways, as was previously thought. Instead, the virus prefers to replicate in immune cells. This finding potentially paves the way for new and better cancer treatments that use a modified version of the measles virus to focus on the immune system.

Measles was thought to spread by first infecting the cells that line the airways before going on to attack the immune cells. An alternative suggestion, that the virus is carried primarily by lymphatic immune cells, was tested by Roberto Cattaneo at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and colleagues. Their results are published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation 1.

Cattaneo’s team made a measles virus that was 'blind' to the measles receptors in the airway linings, which are known as epithelial-cell receptors. The virus was still able to enter and leave lymphatic cells, and could attach to the measles receptor on these cells, a receptor known as the signalling lymphocytic activation molecule (SLAM).

Lung bypass

When the mutant virus was given to rhesus monkeys through the nose, the animals showed signs of measles infection – weight loss and rash. But once the virus had had its effect, it was unable to leave the body through the airways (a process known as shedding). This shows that the virus couldn’t cross the epithelium on its way out of the body via the lungs, and so was unlikely to have entered the body by that route either. Rather, it infected the lymphatic cells first.

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“We’ve shown that replication in the airways is not required, and that a virus replicating only in immune cells causes measles in monkeys,” says Cattaneo.

“That an epithelial-cell-receptor-blind virus variant is not released by the host is a nice surprising finding,” says Juergen Schneider-Schaulies, a virologist at the University of Wuerzberg in Germany.

Reprogrammed measles viruses are being investigated as a means of delivering cancer treatments, and this new understanding of the measles virus’s infectious route could add to such research. “There may be implications for new kinds of cancer treatments using a very safe attenuated measles virus,” says Schneider-Schaulies. 

  • References

    1. Leonard, V. H. J. et al. J. Clin. Invest. doi:10.1172/JCI35454 (2008).
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