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Vaccination on the horizon for severe viral infection of the brain

Researchers from the University of Zurich and the University Hospital Zurich reveal possible new treatment methods for a rare, usually fatal brain disease. Thanks to their discovery that specific antibodies play a key role in combating the viral infection, a vaccine against the disease “progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy” could now be developed.

Humans carry a multitude of viruses and bacteria in their gut, on their skin and in other organs. Often, these are involved in important bodily functions. Under certain conditions, however, some can also cause diseases. The JC virus, a member of the polyoma tumor virus family, is a prime example. This pathogen was first isolated from the brain of a patient who was suffering from a rare brain disease known as progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML). The virus, which more than 60 percent of the global population are infected with, normally resides in the kidneys and certain other organs. JC virus can trigger the PML infection in the brain, which, in most cases, is fatal.

Weak immune system facilitates brain infection

Two studies conducted by an international team of researchers from the University of Zurich, the University Hospital Zurich, the National Institutes of Health in the USA, San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, the University of Tübingen, and the UZH spin-off Neurimmune now reveal that the antibodies in PML patients often fail to recognize the JC virus they are infected with. “In healthy people, the disease never breaks out as the immune system keeps it well under control. Once the immune system is compromised, however, such as in patients with tumors, leukemia, AIDS, autoimmune diseases and certain immunosuppressive treatments, the JC virus is able to alter its genetic information and infect the brain,” explains Roland Martin, professor of neurology at the University of Zurich.

Image of infection in the brain of multiple sclerosis patient suffering from progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy
Infection (light zone) in the brain of multiple sclerosis patients suffering from progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML)
Image: Neuroradiology, USZ