Hantavirus is a rare but deadly virus that can infect humans who inhale rodent droppings, but there is now a new understanding of how humans become infected with the virus.
"Hantavirus is a rodent-carried virus that can jump to humans. This virus naturally lives in their host rodents, so when humans contact with these rodents, and they are exposed to their feces or urine we can catch the virus."
That was Zhongde Wang, a professor in the department of Animal, Dairy, and Veterinary Sciences at Utah State University. Wang and his collaborators investigated how the hantavirus infects human lungs by using hamsters as a model organism.
"The major objective of our study is to identify the cellular receptors for the virus to infect human cells and we used a hamster as a model because a hamster is the only rodent that has been identified to be infected with hantavirus and develop human-like disease," Wang said.
According to Wang and his collaborators a gene called PCDH1 codes for a specific protein that is the receptor for the hantavirus in the human lungs. Both humans and the hamsters share this PCDH1 gene.
"And we knocked out this gene and we show that without this gene, without this protein, the hamsters are highly resistant to hantavirus infection," he said.
There are currently no treatments or vaccines available for humans infected with hantavirus, medical professionals can only treat the symptoms of the disease, which include fever, muscle fatigue and lungs filling with fluid.
"This virus is very deadly and yet there are no anti-hantavirus therapeutics available, no FDA-approved therapy available," Wang said. "So by identifying the receptor for this virus we can come up with some strategy. For example we can block the interaction between the virus and the human receptor. Our study may lead to a treatment that will prevent the spreading and infection of the virus because if you block the entry of the virus to cells you prevent infection."
According to Wang, an FDA approved treatment for hantavirus will not happen soon, but the identification of the human protein receptor is a major step towards hantavirus treatment in the future.