Immune Flaw in Host May Cause West Nile Virus’s Deadliest Symptoms

Four out of five of people infected with the mosquito-borne West Nile virus (WNV) won’t even know it—heartening news when you consider there’s no vaccine to prevent the disease nor targeted medications to treat it. However, the rest can develop a serious illness—particularly the approximately 1% who get encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that requires hospitalization. Up to 20% of these patients die. What is it that makes these select few so vulnerable? An international team of researchers led by Rockefeller University’s Jean-Laurent Casanova, MD, PhD, and Alessandro Borghesi, MD, PhD, of the San Matteo Research Hospital in Pavia, Italy, recently pinpointed the cause: an autoimmune defect that prevents the body from defending itself. As published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine (JEM), the researchers found that about 35% of patients hospitalized for WNV also carry autoantibodies that neutralize type 1 interferons, the signaling proteins deployed by a variety of cells in the fight against viruses. The prevalence was highest for people with encephalitis, 40% of whom had the autoantibodies that curb their own defense system from combatting the viral invader. The open-access JEM article is titled “Autoantibodies Neutralizing Type I IFNs Underlie West Nile Virus Encephalitis in ∼40% of Patients.”

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