Chickenpox is a disease most people get once as a child, and never again. But actually, the virus – varicella zoster virus (VZV) – lurks like a sleeping dragon in your body for life, and can resurface decades later as shingles. To identify how it lingers so long, researchers studied its interactions with our natural killer (NK) cells, one of the immune system’s first responders to virus infection. They found the virus infects the cells, then hijacks them for its own nefarious purposes. In particular, it steers NK cells towards the skin – the site of those infectious and itchy chickenpox spots. Four days after infected NK cells were introduced to epithelial (skin) cells, plaques had formed and were producing substances typical of VZV infection (coloured red, green and blue in the formation pictured). Unpicking how lifelong diseases take hold helps not just chickenpox research, but our understanding of the immune system itself.
Written by Anthony Lewis
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