Return of the Andromeda Strain?

The discovery of an exotic, infectious virus reveals leads to treatments for common lung diseases. Sounds like the plot of a new sci-fi novel turned movie?  Beautiful scientists battling a new superbug from outer space!

Not so, this one is all home grown and 100% non-fiction. According to the CDC, there have been three recent outbreaks of monkeypox in the United States.

Monkeypox is a rare viral disease that occurs mainly in the rain forest countries of central and west Africa. First discovered in laboratory monkeys in 1958, it has since shown up in rodents, squirrels, mice, rats, and rabbits. In 1970, monkeypox was reported in humans for the first time and in June 2003, the first documented infection occurred in the United States, most likely from imported pet prairie dogs.

Monkeypox infections in humans have been on the rise. Up to 10% of those infected, die of the disease. It can be caught from infected rodents, pets and monkeys and is thought to be transmitted by respiratory droplets during direct and prolonged face-to-face contact. Researchers attribute the rise of monkeypox infections to the end of smallpox vaccinations, which provided protection due to the similar nature of the two pox viruses.

Signs and symptoms of infection include fever, headache, muscle aches, backache, swollen lymph nodes, a general feeling of discomfort, and exhaustion. Within 1 to 3 days (sometimes longer) after the appearance of fever, the patient develops a papular rash. Death, when it occurs, is generally due to pneumonia.

But until now there have been few studies to look at how monkeypox infection damages the lungs. In the latest study, researchers at the Oregon National Primate Research Center infected macaque monkeys with the virus and followed the course of infection in the lungs of individual animals.

What they found was not only does the infection from monkeypox virus increase production of inflammatory proteins, it also decreases production of proteins that keep lung tissue intact and lubricated.

Going into this study, we thought monkeypox caused disease primarily by inducing inflammation in the lung, and that leads to pneumonia,” said lead author Joseph Brown, a systems biologist at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “We were surprised to see how badly the virus wrecked the structural integrity of the lungs.”

The results suggest that inflammation contributes to disease but it may not be the main component. Interfering with the structural proteins may play a major role.

Ultimately, this type of research could have wider implications than viral infection. “This study serves as a great reference for pulmonary diseases,” said co-author Josh Adkins. “It opens up the doors for other lung fluid studies.”

If these results can be reproduced in people, doctors might be able to give surfactants – lubricating chemicals that aid in gas exchange – to help the lung function in patients with altogether more common diseases such as bronchitis, emphysema or even flu.

As always, SRxA’s Word on Health will keep you informed of all developments.

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