A single new weapon against multiple viruses transmitted by ticks

(image: Jan Erhart)
(image: Jan Erhart)

Institutional Communication Service

9 April 2021

The bite of a tick can transmit Tick-Borne Encephalitis Virus (TBEV), which can cause brain infection, hospitalisation and long term neurologic problems. TBEV is only one among half a dozen viruses that ticks can transmit, causing for instance fulminant encephalitis (brain infection) or haemorrhagic disease (bleedings) for which there is no effective therapy. Unlike TBEV, there is no vaccine or treatment at the horizon against these viruses. At least not until recently. By studying the immune response of individuals recovering from TBEV infection, researchers at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB, affiliated to USI Università della Svizzera italana) and collaborators in New York and the Czech Republic have discovered a new weapon: antibodies that are efficacious against multiple tick viruses at once. The findings are reported in the Journal of Experimental Medicine

"This came as a surprise", says Davide Robbiani, Head of the Laboratory of immunology and infectious disease and Director of the IRB, "discovering an agent that neutralises a single virus is a major step forward, identifying a single molecule that blocks multiple viruses at once opens the door to the development of broadly efficacious medical countermeasures that are very much in need". Other disease-causing tick-borne viruses include Kyasanur forest disease virus in India, Alkhurma virus in Saudi Arabia, Omsk hemorrhagic fever virus in Russia, louping ill virus in Ireland and Norway, and Powassan virus in Canada and the United States. 

The discovery also means that it may be possible to design a next-generation vaccine that protects against many of the viruses transmitted by ticks. "This is an exciting perspective", says Prof. Robbiani, adding that research on this topic will continue at the IRB thanks to support by the Swiss National Science Foundation for a follow-up project in collaboration with researchers at the Czech Academy of Sciences. This discovery adds to the ongoing effort at the IRB in the fight against emerging infectious diseases, including the coronavirus (>> www.usi.ch/en/feeds/15315), and strengthens the positioning of the IRB within those international networks dedicated to preventing future pandemics (>> www.usi.ch/en/feeds/15582

The scientific article published by JEM  is available online at >> https://doi.org/10.1084/jem.20210236

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Academy of Architecture, Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society, Faculty of Biomedical Sciences, Faculty of Economics, Faculty of Informatics