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J Neurovirol. 2011 Dec;17(6):578-89. doi: 10.1007/s13365-011-0070-1. Epub 2011 Dec 22.

Varicella zoster virus (VZV) infects and establishes latency in enteric neurons.

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Departments of Pathology and Cell Biology, Columbia University, College of P&S, New York, NY, USA.


Case reports have linked varicella-zoster virus (VZV) to gastrointestinal disorders, including severe abdominal pain preceding fatal varicella and acute colonic pseudoobstruction (Ogilvie's syndrome). Because we had previously detected DNA and transcripts encoding latency-associated VZV gene products in the human gut, we sought to determine whether latent VZV is present in the human enteric nervous system (ENS) and, if so, to identify the cells in which it is located and its route to the bowel. Neither DNA, nor transcripts encoding VZV gene products, could be detected in resected gut from any of seven control children (<1 year old) who had not received the varicella vaccine or experienced varicella; however, VZV DNA and transcripts were each found to be present in resected bowel from 6/6 of children with a past history of varicella and in that of 6/7 of children who received the varicella vaccine. Both wild-type (WT) and vaccine-type (vOka) VZV thus establish latent infection in human gut. To determine routes by which VZV might gain access to the bowel, we injected guinea pigs with human or guinea pig lymphocytes expressing green fluorescent protein (GFP) under the control of the VZV ORF66 gene (VZV(OKA66.GFP)). GFP-expressing enteric neurons were found throughout the bowel within 2 days and continued to be present for greater than 6 weeks. DNA encoding VZV gene products also appeared in enteric and dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons following intradermal administration of WT-VZV and in enteric neurons after intradermal injection of VZV(OKA66.GFP); moreover, a small number of guinea pig DRG neurons were found to project both to the skin and the intraperitoneal viscera. Viremia, in which lymphocytes carry VZV, or axonal transport from DRG neurons infected through their epidermal projections are thus each potential routes that enable VZV to gain access to the ENS.

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