Global Health News

Innovative Research Model Sheds Light on Immune Response in Dengue Infection

March 28, 2019 by Sean Diehl, Ph.D., and Jennifer Nachbur

Investigators in UVM's Vaccine Testing Center and Center for Translational Global Infectious Disease Research (TGIR) have uncovered details of the human immune response to infection with dengue - a close "cousin" of the Zika virus - which 40 percent of the global population is at risk for contracting. Their study findings were reported recently in the Lancet’s open-access journal EBioMedicine.

UVM Assistant Professor of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics Sean Diehl, Ph.D., and graduate student Huy Tu in their Given lab. (Photo: Larner Medical Communications)

Investigators in the University of Vermont's Vaccine Testing Center and Center for Translational Global Infectious Disease Research (TGIR) have uncovered details of the human immune response to infection with dengue - a close "cousin" of the Zika virus - which 40 percent of the global population is at risk for contracting. Study findings, reported recently in the Lancet’s open-access journal EBioMedicine, illustrate new critical information that could provide much-needed help to evaluating dengue vaccine formulations and assist with advancing safe and efficacious candidate vaccines to help combat the most important mosquito-borne viral infection in our time.

Like Zika, yellow fever and West Nile viruses, dengue belongs to a group of mosquito-borne viruses that circulate in many tropical countries. However, without effective treatment and a safe licensed vaccine, dengue infection can lead to debilitating illnesses, including severe pain and hemorrhagic fever. One of the challenges of dengue infection is that it can be caused by one of four versions - or serotypes - of the virus, which are numbered dengue 1 to 4. Infection by one serotype typically results in long-term protection specific to that serotype. However, a later exposure to a different serotype can result in more severe disease. Experts believe this phenomenon occurs due to a part of the immune response, the antibodies, which may recognize and promote the second infection rather than defeat it. 

“Trying to tease out the protective immune response in naturally infected patients is a challenge, since people living in high-risk areas likely have been exposed to multiple serotypes of the virus, which confound the observation,” said Sean Diehl, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, project leader in the TGIR and one the study’s lead investigators. “In our model, we controlled the infection for safety reasons and the participants were monitored for six months in order to understand the biological changes that occur following the infection.”

Over a six-month period, Diehl and his colleagues tracked the immune response and measured its different aspects, from the levels of certain immune blood cells to the levels of antibodies they produce and how these antibodies can recognize different dengue serotypes. In this study, co-led by Huy Tu, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Cellular and Molecular Biomedical Sciences program, the group defined the evolution of the antibody response in dengue infection in a controlled human model where subjects were treated with a weakened version of the virus. The research showed that the study participants developed an antibody response against the virus as early as two weeks after the infection. This immune response was highly focused against the infecting serotype, neutralized the virus, and persisted for months afterwards. With a comprehensive approach, the study dissected the antibody response at the single-cell level resolution, mapped the interaction between human antibodies to structural components on the  virus’s surface, and connected the functional features of the response during acute infection to time points past recovery. 

In addition to Diehl and Tu, UVM co-investigators on the study included Beth Kirkpatrick, M.D., chair and professor of microbiology and molecular genetics and medicine, and Kristen Pierce, M.D., associate professor of medicine. This work is the result of a longstanding collaboration between the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Vaccine Testing Center at UVM.