Up to half a million people in Britain today may not know it, but in their genetic material they carry a particular form of herpesvirus 6 inherited from a parent.
The study from the world-renowned Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester, is funded principally by the Medical Research Council (MRC), and published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research.
The research led by Dr Nicola Royle, Senior Lecturer in Genetics, has identified a mechanism by which the inherited herpesvirus 6 can escape from the chromosome and may be able to reactivate under certain conditions.
This research may have important implications for transplantation, as those seeking transplants are often immunosuppressed, and are more susceptible to viral reactivation. The implications of the study suggested screening donors for this inherited form of HHV-6 could help doctors make more informed decisions about which donors to use.
The research in Dr Royle's laboratory focuses on telomeres, structures at the ends of chromosomes that have a protective role. When a telomere becomes short or is damaged it can trigger cellular senescence or result in genetic changes; consequently telomeres have roles in ageing and cancer. The inherited herpesvirus 6 (CI-HHV-6) is found in a telomere and so the questions Dr Royle has been addressing are: what is the virus doing there and does it affect telomere function?
There are many human herpesviruses and most can enter latency following infection, during which they persist in a small subset of cells lifelong. For example, the primary infection of HHV-3 causes chickenpox in children but following latency it can reactivate and cause shingles.
The 1% of us that inherit CI-HHV-6 in a telomere have a high copy number of this virus (one copy per cell of the whole body) but it is not known if this is a form of latency.