Scientists at Bar-Ilan University have modeled for the first time how the dormant chicken pox virus “wakes up” in later adulthood and causes shingles.

In the study recently published in PLOS Pathogens, the scientists have successfully shown how the varicella-zoster virus (VZW) is triggered after lying dormant in the body for many years.

Professor Ronald Goldstein explained that shingles is an unfortunate side-effect of the once-common childhood illness that strikes most often in older adults.

“Most adults harbor latent VZV in their nervous system – a ‘souvenir’ from a bout with childhood chickenpox,” he said.

When it strikes again, the virus is even more painful and sometimes debilitating.

“In one-third of people over 50, or in those with weakened immune system, VZV re-activation triggers the localized rash, itchiness and pain of shingles,” the scientist continued. ” In one-third of these cases, however, shingles symptoms are far more serious, causing debilitating pain that can last for months or even years.”

Although an anti-shingles vaccine exists, it is only effective 50 percent of the time, making the Israeli’s research into VZW important to help find a better way to stop shingles in its track for the many older adults who continue to be plagued by the viral flare-up.

The research could also have implications beyond preventing the painful VZW induced condition.

To examine the VZW virus, the team first developed a new model that eliminated the need for animal testing and used stem cells instead.

The innovative model established stable, latent-state VZV in neurons derived from human embryonic stem cells or hESCs. According to the Bar-Ilan team, this stem cell modeling will allow for new drugs to be tested for VZW and other common viruses.

It may also eliminate the need to infect animals to study drugs efficacy allowing animal-free research for a number of viruses that make humans sick.

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