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New research investigates transmission mechanisms of HTLV-1

March 11, 2019

By Sarah Warr

Dr. Vincent Piguet
Dr. Vincent Piguet

A persistent challenge in global public health, human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1) spreads similarly to HIV and causes immune suppression leading to opportunistic infections including progressive and disabling inflammatory conditions. New research from Dr. Vincent Piguet, scientist at Women’s College Research Institute (WCRI) and head of dermatology at Women’s College Hospital (WCH), aims to understand the underlying mechanisms of how the virus spreads within the body in order to help reduce the high morbidity and mortality associated with the disease.

The study, published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, used different types of microscopy to show that cell-to-cell contacts mediate the transfer of the virus between HTLV-1 -infected T-cells and dendritic cells, cells that act as messengers between the immune systems within the body. The findings suggest a key role for dendritic cells in the early spread of HTLV-1, comparable to HIV infection mechanisms.

Spread through unprotected sex, sharing needles or syringes and breastfeeding by an infected mother to child, HTLV-1 causes a lifetime infection and currently has no treatment. In many cases, the virus doesn’t cause any symptoms or health problems. However, one in 20 will get sick with an associated illness such as adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma (ATLL), HTLV myelopathy/tropical spastic paraparesis and HTLV-1-associated infective dermatitis. ATLL is a rare cancer and highly aggressive cancer of the immune system usually accompanied by hypercalcemia, skin lesions and lytic bone lesions. HTLV myelopathy/tropical spastic paraparesis is a condition that causes weakness, muscle spasms and sensory disturbance, and can eventually cause individuals to lose the ability to walk. HTLV-1-associated infective dermatitis occurs during childhood in patients with HTLV-1 and causes chronic, severe and recurrent eczema.

Recently, 60 scientists from around the world published an open letter to the World Health Organization asking that a global investment and proactive public health interventions be applied to HTLV-1. Effective intervention strategies haven’t been actively publicized in Central Australia, Japan, America and the Caribbean, where ongoing the ongoing sexual transmission of HTLV-1 remains a strong threat to individual, community and global health. Dr. Piguet’s findings on the mechanisms behind the disease will help inform these strategies to reduce infection rates across the globe.

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