Mouse study suggests viral infections can lead to autoimmune diseases

Evidence is mounting that seemingly innocuous viral infections can in some cases cascade into a range of more serious diseases. In a new study in mice, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have uncovered a mechanism by which a common childhood virus could play a role in autoimmune diseases down the track.

Recent research is increasingly showing that many of these apparently benign infections could possibly, in combination with other genetic and environmental factors, trigger diseases like Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and several types of cancer. While it usually doesn’t cause any symptoms after that initial infection, scientists have suspected that it may play a role in autoimmune diseases.

The team found that the mice had not only developed antibodies against proteins on stomach cells, but to a range of other proteins throughout the body, some of which are implicated in other autoimmune diseases.

“Human autoimmune disease also may occur via viral infection that gets cleared but leaves damage that can cause autoimmunity,” said Wayne Yokoyama, senior author of the study.

There has to be some other factor that we don’t understand yet that makes some people more susceptible to the autoimmune effects of roseolovirus infection, because almost all people are infected, but most people do not get autoimmune diseases. That is a really important topic for further investigation.”