From humans, viruses and cat kidneys

Scientists have gained new insights into how feline morbillivirus is transmitted. Can the virus be dangerous for humans?

For the study, virologists from the Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh analyzed feline morbillivirus (FeMV) in the laboratory and were able to describe its infectious mechanism. They were also able to show how infection can occur in humans. The virus, a member of the paramyxovirus family, was only discovered 10 years ago and is associated with chronic kidney disease in cats. The researchers published their results in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Understand and stop the transmission

Research results show that FeMV uses the same mechanism of entry into cells as other viruses from the Morbillivirus family, e.g. B. measles virus. However, unlike measles viruses, FeMV appears to be transmitted from host to host through urine, similar to the zoonotic Nipah virus, which is native to bats and causes annual fatal outbreaks in humans in Southeast Asia.

The study offers the first clear look at this understudied virus and its potential route from infecting animals to spreading to humans.

“Feline morbillivirus has remained under the radar for many years,” says lead author Paul Duprex, director of the Center for Vaccine Research at Pitt School of Medicine. “By understanding the genetics of a virus that has been difficult to grow in the laboratory, we are now able to elucidate its link to chronic kidney disease and better understand how to prevent transmission and possible spread to the human population.”

How the virus gets into the kidneys

FeMV was first detected in stray cats in Hong Kong a decade ago and has since been found in domestic cats in Asia and Europe. It was identified and fully sequenced in 2016 by the Duprex research team in the US working in Boston. While previous studies have linked FeMV infection to chronic kidney disease in cats – a leading cause of death in older animals – the new study shows in unprecedented detail how the virus enters the kidney.

Like other members of the same viral family, FeMV enters cells by binding to a surface protein receptor called CD150. Related viruses, including measles viruses, also use CD150 as a primary entry receptor, and people vaccinated against measles are protected from FeMV infection. However, the eradication of measles could provide an evolutionary drive for other morbilliviruses, such as FeMV, to seek new hosts and infect unvaccinated people.

“It is therefore important to proactively research animal diseases and their pathogens,” says Duprex. “Precaution is the fundamental and ultimate solution to averting an epidemic.”

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Cathepsin inhibition solution?

By developing a genetically engineered version of FeMV that contains a fluorescent probe, the researchers were able to track the spread of the virus in cells and organs and found that its transmission could be stopped by inhibiting a class of protein-splitting enzymes called cathepsins. Interestingly, cathepsins are mainly used by nipaviruses but not morbilliviruses, suggesting that FeMV is an evolutionary intermediate between these two virus families.

“It’s important to understand animal pathogens because they can become human pathogens,” says Duprex. “Knowing about the viruses that infect cats is not only important for reducing the incidence of kidney disease in our pets, but also helps us gain insight into emerging infectious diseases and how they can spread between different animal species. There are approximately 85 million cats in the US and more than half a billion worldwide. We live in close proximity to them and their health is important.”

The article is based on a University of Pittsburgh press release. You can find the original publication here and the link in the text.

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