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Virus-encoded modulation of apoptosis may serve as a mechanism to enhance cell survival and virus persistence. The impact of productive varicella-zoster virus (VZV) infection on apoptosis appears to be cell type specific, as infected human sensory neurons are resistant to apoptosis, yet human fibroblasts readily become apoptotic. We sought to identify the viral gene product(s) responsible for this antiapoptotic phenotype in primary human sensory neurons. Treatment with phosphonoacetic acid to inhibit viral DNA replication and late-phase gene expression did not alter the antiapoptotic phenotype, implicating immediate-early (IE) or early genes or a virion component. Compared to the parental VZV strain (rOKA), a recombinant virus unable to express one copy of the diploid IE gene ORF63 (rOka deltaORF63) demonstrated a significant induction of apoptosis in infected neurons, as determined by three methods: annexin V staining, deoxynucleotidyltransferase-mediated dUTP-biotin nick end label staining, and transmission electron microscopy. Furthermore, neurons transfected with a plasmid expressing ORF63 resisted apoptosis induced by nerve growth factor withdrawal. These results show that ORF63 can suppress apoptosis of neurons and provide the first identification of a VZV gene encoding an antiapoptotic function. As ORF63 is expressed in neurons during both productive and latent infection, it may play a significant role in viral pathogenesis by promoting neuron survival during primary and reactivated infections.


Chantelle Hood, Anthony L Cunningham, Barry Slobedman, Ann M Arvin, Marvin H Sommer, Paul R Kinchington, Allison Abendroth. Varicella-zoster virus ORF63 inhibits apoptosis of primary human neurons. Journal of virology. 2006 Jan;80(2):1025-31

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PMID: 16379003

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