Parents pass on herpes virus to kids after it merges with DNA

September 3rd, 2008 - 2:37 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Sep 3 (IANS) Some parents unwittingly pass on the human herpes virus-6 to their children because it is integrated with their chromosomes. This is the first time that a study by University of Rochester Medical Centre (URMC) has shown the virus to become part of the human DNA and then get transferred to future generations.

This mode of congenital infection may be occurring in as many as one out of every 116 newborns, and the long-term consequences for a child’s development and immune system are unknown.

“At this point, we know very little about the implications of this type of infection, but the section of the chromosome into which the virus appears to integrate is important to the maintenance of normal immune function,” said Caroline Breese Hall, professor of paediatrics and Medicine at URMC, and author of the study.

“With further study, we hope to discern whether this type of infection affects children differently than children infected after birth.”

Human herpes virus-6 or HHV-6 causes roseola, an infection that is nearly universal by the age of three. The syndrome produces several days of high fever and may have variable symptoms like mild respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms.

With roseola, just as the fever breaks, the child may briefly develop a rash. A congenital infection of HHV-6 - or one that is present at birth - produces high levels of virus in the body but scientists (doctors) do not know whether it produces any developmental or immune system problems.

Some congenital infections can cause serious problems in foetuses. If a mother contracts cytomegalovirus (CMV) while pregnant, her foetus is at risk of hearing or vision loss, developmental disabilities and problems with the lungs, liver and spleen.

Some of those health problems don’t show up until months or years after birth. HHV-6 virus is a closely related virus to CMV, and the congenital infection rate of CMV is similar to that of congenital HHV-6 - about one percent.

However, this research shows that a congenital HHV-6 infection differs greatly from a congenital CMV infection in that it is often integrated into the chromosomes of the baby rather than passed through the placenta.

“This is the first time a herpes virus has been recognised to integrate into the human genome. To think that it’s actually a part of us - that’s really fascinating,” said Mary Caserta, associate professor of Paediatrics at the URMC and a co-author. “This opens up a whole new realm of exploration.”

Of 254 children enrolled in this study between July 2003 and April 2007, 43 had congenital HHV-6 infections based on cord blood samples. Of 211 children without congenital infection, 42 were children who acquired an HHV-6 infection during the study.

Of the infants who had congenital infections, 86 percent of them (37) had the virus integrated into their chromosomes. Only six of the congenitally infected babies were infected by the mother through the placenta .

Children who had integrated HHV-6 had higher levels of virus in the body than those who were infected through the placenta.

These findings are scheduled for publication this month in Paediatrics.

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