New research shows unexpected effects of viral infections

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New findings from campus researchers indicate that viral infections can have unexpected consequences, including a deterioration in muscle health, a lesser sense of well-being and a higher inclination toward obesity, according to a campus press release.

Irina Conboy, an associate professor in the campus’s department of bioengineering, worked on the research in her lab with campus undergraduate Yutong Liu. They found that viral infections decrease the intensity of oxytocin receptor MAPK, or OXTR, which is a cell-signaling pathway known for its connection to muscle health.

“Once you get a virus, there’s damage in your muscle cell regeneration ability,” Liu said.

The study suggests that any virus could have long-term consequences in human aging, according to Dr. Matthew O’Connor, head of research at the SENS Research Foundation.

“We’re all familiar with the normal idea of getting a temporary flu and that making us sick,” O’Connor said. “But this raises the sector of viruses that might cause unexpected consequences to include even so-called harmless viruses.”

The SENS Foundation, along with the National Institutes of Health and the Packer Endowment, funded the study.

The researchers came across the discovery by accident, according to Liu. While studying a standard method for inserting genes into cells, called viral vectors, the researchers had to include an experimental control to make sure that the observed effects were being caused by the added genetic material. Surprisingly, Conboy and Liu found that the control viral vectors were showing different signaling than unexposed organisms.

Liu was surprised by this development. After talking with Conboy, they decided to leave their initial study behind to explore this unexpected turn of events. According to O’Connor, this was one of those “classic serendipitous moments” that happen in science.

“The researchers have performed a very important step by looking at the big picture. When foreign biological material is added to, or natural biological components are eliminated from an organism, unintended negative consequences frequently occur,” said campus virology professor Gertrude Buehring in an email.

The results of this study raises questions as to which actions should be taken to prevent viruses with the new information. O’Connor suggested the possibility of vaccinating against “so-called” harmless viruses.

Emily Schneider, a member of the executive board at Cal Student Assistance for Public Health, said this study has brought to light another connection between viral infection and long-term disease. The complex nature of viruses is a contributing factor to the majority of recently emerging diseases, including Ebola and Zika, coming from viral origins, she said.

“It is vital that public health systems prepare for the emergence of new viruses and that research, such as this study, works to understand the implications of these infections,” Schneider said in an email.

Contact Madeline Wells at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @madwellsdc.