0930 GMT March 24, 2019
In mice, norovirus infects rare cells in the lining of the gut called tuft cells, sciencenews.org wrote.
Like beacons in a dark sea, these cells glowed with evidence of a norovirus infection in fluorescent microscopy images.
Study coauthor Craig Wilen, a physician scientist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said, “If norovirus also targets tuft cells in humans, maybe that’s the cell type we need to be treating.”
Worldwide, norovirus causes about one in five cases of acute gastroenteritis, an illness of vomiting and diarrhea accompanied by rapid dehydration.
More than 200,000 people die annually from the virus, nearly all in developing countries.
Norovirus even popped up at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, reportedly infecting around 275 people including a few competing athletes.
But little is known about how norovirus, which is actually a group of viruses, does its dirty work in the body — including what cells it targets.
Immunologist David Artis of Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, who was not involved in the study, said, “Identifying a role for tuft cells in the interactions between the virus and its host is a significant step forward.”
Wilen and colleagues had previously discovered the protein that norovirus requires to enter cells in mice.
They used that clue to uncover the role of the tuft cells, which have recently been tied to a certain type of immune response. The cells get their name from a cluster of tube structures sticking off of one end.
The finding that norovirus targets tuft cells fits with previous research on the virus and other pathogens.
Intestinal parasitic worms can make a norovirus infection worse in mice. And tuft cells are known to increase in number during these parasite infections.
Killing off gut bacteria has also stopped norovirus infections in mice. In the new study, Wilen and colleagues found that knocking out the bacteria with antibiotics decreased the genetic activity of tuft cells.
Wilen said, “Having more tuft cells seems to be good for the virus.”
The tuft cells-norovirus connection may prove fruitful for research into inflammatory bowel disease as well.
There are certain forms of genes that slightly increase the risk of developing Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
Researchers speculate that an outside trigger such as an infection might be what ultimately unleashes these diseases.
In another study, Wilen noted, mice genetically predisposed to have Crohn’s disease developed symptoms of that disease after being infected with norovirus.