Bioinformaticians unmask chickenpox virus

Date: 28 June 2016

Introduction: Scientists at the University of Antwerp have succeeded in exposing the mechanism by which the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles can 'hide' itself.

Varicella zoster is the scientific name of the virus that causes childhood chickenpox and shingles in adults. Just like many other viruses, it is extremely good at evading the human immune system.

UAntwerp researchers tested innovative bioinformatics models on this virus and discovered a mechanism by which the virus can hide from our immune system. “We discovered that the composition of the viral proteins is no coincidence," explains Dr. Peter Meysman. "This composition has evolved in such a way that the viral proteins involved in the most vulnerable phase of the infection are difficult for our immune system to recognise."

This mechanism probably has its roots in the biological ‘arms race’ that has been fought between the virus and the human organism throughout evolution. After all, viruses are under tremendous evolutionary pressure to survive in humans as long as possible.

“The avoidance mechanism discovered in this virus was previously unknown and has important implications for the development of vaccines for this and other viruses”, says Meysman. “With this knowledge, we can select the most effective targets for the development of new and better vaccines.”

Data mining techniques

The study was part of a large-scale project in which immunologists and computer scientists are working together, using new computer science methods, to shed light on the interaction between diseases and the human immune system. Studying such interactions in an experimental setting is extremely complex. In this project, the researchers are making use of machine learning techniques that allow computers to ‘learn’ from large-scale data.

“Similar techniques are being used by big companies like Google and Facebook, for example, to extract insights from social networks,” says Professor Kris Laukens.  “This research is a nice example of how modern data mining techniques can produce new, fundamental biomedical insights using large-scale molecular data.”

The study was published in Immunogenetics.