Since chikungunya virus emerged in the Americas in 2013, it has infected millions of people, causing fever, headache, rash, and muscle and joint pain. For some people, painful, debilitating arthritis lasts long after the other symptoms have resolved. Researchers have suspected that the virus or its genetic material - in this case, RNA - persist in the body undetected, but they have been unable to find its hiding places. Now, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have figured out a way to detect cells infected with chikungunya virus that survive the infection. The scientists genetically modified the virus such that it activated a fluorescent tag within cells during infection. Months after the initial infection, the researchers could detect glowing red cells still harboring viral RNA. The study, in mice, opens up new ways to understand the cause of - and find therapies for - chronic viral arthritis. The findings were published August 29, 2019 in PLOS Pathogens. The open-access article is titled “Dermal and Muscle Fibroblasts and Skeletal Myofibers Survive Chikungunya Virus Infection and Harbor Persistent RNA.” Senior author Deborah Lenschow, MD, PhD, an Associate Professor of Medicine and of Pathology and Immunology, and co-first author and graduate student Marissa Locke answered questions about the research, which was conducted in collaboration with co-first author Alissa Young, PhD, co-author Michael S. Diamond, MD, PhD, the Herbert S. Gasser Professor of Medicine, and others. How common is chronic arthritis caused by chikungunya infection? Dr. Lenschow: Between 30% and 60% of people infected with chikungunya virus go on to develop chronic arthritis that can last up to three or four years after infection.
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