Showing posts with label Virus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Virus. Show all posts

Wednesday 5 April 2023

A virus as a trigger for some Cancer, most Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and perhaps some Autism


Mexico is the world's largest exporter of beer, and it's not just Corona

Not many years ago you would have been considered mad to suggest that a virus could trigger cancer, MS or some autism.

We now have a vaccine to prevent cancers triggered by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Young people aged 9 - 26 are offered this vaccine in many wealthy countries.

It is believed that the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) contributes to about 1.5% of all cases of human cancer.


Epstein-Barr Virus and Cancer


EBV causes mononucleosis (IM, mono), also known as glandular fever. A commercial vaccine does not yet exist but is thought to be achievable.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) has long been thought to have a viral trigger. I have been reading about impaired myelination for 10 years and it takes a very long time for ideas to get confirmed.  In the case of MS it is again the Epstein-Barr virus. Almost all adults have been exposed to this virus and most people do not develop MS.  The science suggests that multiple events are needed to trigger MS, but that a required one is the presence of this virus.  That would suggest that if children were vaccinated against EBV, they could not go on to develop MS later in life.


Epstein-Barr virus may be leading cause of multiple sclerosis

 “The hypothesis that EBV causes MS has been investigated by our group and others for several years, but this is the first study providing compelling evidence of causality,” said Alberto Ascherio, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard Chan School and senior author of the study. “This is a big step because it suggests that most MS cases could be prevented by stopping EBV infection, and that targeting EBV could lead to the discovery of a cure for MS.”


Recall that MS is one of those diseases that is very much more prevalent in females than men.  It is the opposite of autism.

The science is moving on and now has got the point of explaining why EBV can cause cancer.  The actual biological pathways have been proposed.


Signaling pathways of EBV-induced oncogenesis


One of several examples is EBV-induced oncogenesis through the PI3K/AKT signaling pathway.



EBV-induced oncogenesis through the PI3K/AKT signaling pathway. LMP1 and LMP2A promote angiogenesis through the PI3K/AKT/HIF-1α/CCL5 signaling axis and the PI3K/AKT/mTOR/HIF-1α signaling axis, respectively. LMP1 inhibits PTEN through miRNA-21 and enhances the PI3K/AKT signaling pathway to promote the formation and proliferation of CSCs. EBV-miRNA-BART7-3P can also promote the high expression of β-catenin by inhibiting PTEN, leading to EMT


Regular readers may notice overlaps with what we have seen in autism. The same pathway can lead to autism.

Here is a recent autism paper on this same pathway.

Targeting PI3K-AKT/mTOR signaling in the prevention of autism

 The role of viruses in autism

Now we have established that medicine accepts that a virus can play a role in triggering cancer and that science points a finger at a virus being a trigger for MS, it is not so crazy to think about the role viruses might play in some autism. 


The easy part – Maternal Immune Activation (MIA)

We have clear evidence that if a pregnant mother’s immune system is activated during pregnancy the incidence of autism rises.  In this case it is the immune response that causes the problem, rather than the specific virus.


Virus specific

One very damaging virus, spread by mosquitos, is Zika. If a mother is infected  during pregnancy it may lead to microcephaly (small head), brain damage and joint/muscle malformation in her child.


Endogenous retroviruses

It has been suggested in the research for many years that endogenous retroviruses play a role in autism.

Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) are DNA sequences within human chromosomes; they comprise 1 to 8% of the human genome.  HERVs represent footprints of previous retroviral infection and have been termed “fossil viruses”.


Demystified . . . Human endogenous retroviruses

Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) are a family of viruses within our genome with similarities to present day exogenous retroviruses. HERVs have been inherited by successive generations and it is possible that some have conferred biological benefits. However, several HERVs have been implicated in certain cancers and autoimmune diseases. This article demystifies these retroviruses by providing an insight into HERVs, their means of classification, and a synopsis of HERVs implicated in cancer and autoimmunity. Furthermore, the biological roles of HERVs are explored.

Take home messages

o   Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) make up part of our genome and represent footprints of previous retroviral infection

o   HERVs possess a similar genomic organisation (gag–pol–env) to present day exogenous retroviruses but are not infectious

o   The HERV-K superfamily represents one of the most active HERVs and is capable of producing retroviral particles

o   HERVs may be of benefit to the host but could also be harmful, and may be involved in certain autoimmune diseases and cancers


I came across this article recently: 

Could an Ancient Virus Be a Genetic Driver of Autism?

Genome and transcriptome analysis revealed BTBR autism mouse models have increased levels of endogenous retrovirus genes. BTBR/R models of ASD showed differences in the expression of a variety of genes that are indicative of endogenous retrovirus activation. BTBR/R mice exhibit autistic-like behaviors without reduced learning abilities. 

Overall, the study revealed that retrovirus activation causes the copy number variants in BTBR mice to increase, which leads to the differences in behavior and brain structure seen in BTBR/J and BTBR/R mice. 

Further Developments 

BTBR/J mice are widely used by researchers as a mouse model of autism. However, the results of this study highlight the usefulness of the other lineage of BTBR/R mice because they exhibit autistic-like behavior without compromised spatial learning ability. The results also suggest that it may be possible to develop new treatments for autism that suppress ERV activation. 

Furthermore, it is necessary to classify autism subtypes according to their onset mechanism, which is a vital first step towards opening up new avenues of treatment for autism.


Here is the full paper, which comes from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan, which has been mentioned in a previous post.


An old model with new insights: endogenous retroviruses drive the evolvement toward ASD susceptibility and hijack transcription machinery during development

The BTBR T+Itpr3tf/J (BTBR/J) strain is one of the most valid models of idiopathic autism, serving as a potent forward genetics tool to dissect the complexity of autism. We found that a sister strain with an intact corpus callosum, BTBR TF/ArtRbrc (BTBR/R), showed more prominent autism core symptoms but moderate ultrasonic communication/normal hippocampus-dependent memory, which may mimic autism in the high functioning spectrum. Intriguingly, disturbed epigenetic silencing mechanism leads to hyperactive endogenous retrovirus (ERV), a mobile genetic element of ancient retroviral infection, which increases de novo copy number variation (CNV) formation in the two BTBR strains. This feature makes the BTBR strain a still evolving multiple-loci model toward higher ASD susceptibility. Furthermore, active ERV, analogous to virus infection, evades the integrated stress response (ISR) of host defense and hijacks the transcriptional machinery during embryonic development in the BTBR strains. These results suggest dual roles of ERV in the pathogenesis of ASD, driving host genome evolution at a long-term scale and managing cellular pathways in response to viral infection, which has immediate effects on embryonic development. The wild-type Draxin expression in BTBR/R also makes this substrain a more precise model to investigate the core etiology of autism without the interference of impaired forebrain bundles as in BTBR/J.


Hyper-activation of ancient retroviral infection accelerates host genome evolution toward ASD susceptibility by increasing the chance of CNV formation. The accumulated genetic variations lead to the divergence of autistic-like behaviors in both BTBR strains. Active ERV also recapitulates the viral infection process of ISR pathway invasion and IRES-mediated translation, which changes the global transcriptome during embryonic development in BTBR mice. BTBR/R has severer core symptoms of autism and wildtype Draxin expression, which suggests BTBR/R is a valid autism model with unaffected forebrain bundles.


There have been previous studies looking into ERVs and autism.


Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder and Their Mothers Share Abnormal Expression of Selected Endogenous Retroviruses Families and Cytokines


Human Endogenous Retroviruses in Autism Spectrum Disorders: Recent Advances and New Perspectives at the Gene-Environment Interface

Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) are genetic elements, derived from their exogenous retroviral counterpart by a process of germline infection and proliferation within the human genome, and their integration as proviruses led to the fixation and the vertical transmission, following Mendelian laws. HERVs currently make up ~8% of the genetic material, and some of them have been cooped for physiological functions. Otherwise, their activation in response to environmental factors has been associated with human pathological conditions. In the setting of neurodevelopmental disorders, HERVs have been proposed as contributing factors involved in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), spanning the bridge between genetic susceptibility, environmental risk factors and immune response. We described a distinct expression profile of some HERV families and cytokines in lymphocytes from autistic children and in their mothers suggesting a close mother-child association in ASD. Moreover, in vitro treatment with an antiretroviral drug was able to restore the expression level of HERVs and cytokines providing new insights into the potential role of HERVs as biomarkers of ASD and raising the possibility of using HERVs expression as a therapeutic target for a tailored approach to patient care.



We know that some cancer is preventable via a vaccine blocking the progress of a virus, hopefully more types of cancer will be prevented in future.

Some of the suggested modes of action for the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) to cause cancer do involve pathways that are very relevant to autism.

It appears that an effective EBV vaccine might protect women (and some men) from developing multiple sclerosis (MS).  Will it also have the effect of reducing their chance of giving birth to a child with autism?  Time will tell.

Any kind of illness, viral or other, may trigger an exaggerated immune response during pregnancy and increase the incidence of autism.  This is the basis of one of the common animal models of autism, called Maternal Immune Activation (MIA).

The human endogenous retroviruses  (ERVs) accumulated as junk in our DNA do appear to be able to affect gene expression leading to cancer, autoimmune disease and indeed some autism.

The Japanese researchers from RIKEN suggest that it may be possible to develop new treatments for autism that suppress ERV activation.

One logical question is whether viruses are relevant just to causing autism or its ongoing level of severity.

In the case of cancer and MS it looks like the virus is primarily involved in triggering the disease.  Once the process has started, the benefit from suppressing the virus may have passed. 

Can existing antiviral drugs treat some autism?  Antiviral drugs work just for specific viruses and they just suppress them, rather than eliminating them.

The antiviral drug Valtrex has long been used by some doctors to treat autism in the US. Just Google it and you will find enthusiasts like parent Jenny McCarthy -- “when we started him on Valtrex, speech started pouring out of him”.  There have been no clinical trials.

This is an area where more research genuinely is needed. Hopefully the RIKEN Brain Science Institute will translate their ERV findings into approved therapies.  That is what is supposed to happen, but usually does not when it comes to autism.

Autism is nowadays such a broadly defined diagnosis, just about anything might have caused it. Autistic behaviors have been caused by a bacterium, a fungus/mold and very possibly a virus.  If only it was as straightforward as understanding and treating MS.

Thursday 26 September 2019

Treatable Human Endogenous Retroviruses (HERVs) in Multiple Sclerosis (MS), ALS and other Neurological Diseases – an Enemy from Within?

A microglial cell, labelled in green, contacts and attacks a myelinated axon (in red). In the presence of the pHERV-W envelope protein, this interaction leads to axonal injury. The blue structures are cell nuclei. Credit: HHU / Joel Gruchot / Patrick Küry

It is surprising that only about 2% of human DNA encodes the 20,000 or so genes we all have.  The other 98% used to be called junk DNA.

About 8% of your DNA is made up of Endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) that have been picked up during evolution and most of which have been inactivated and can indeed be regarded as junk. Some of these old viruses that became part of human DNA remain fully functional, can be activated; they are implicated in disease ranging from Multiple Sclerosis (MS), to cancer, to schizophrenia and ALS (motor neuron disease).

The best documented ERV is the one that affects some people with MS, it is called HERV-W  (the H is for Human).  Only in the presence of a protein encoded by this virus can the microglia cells attack the myelin layer on axons.  In this kind of MS, if you could switch off the HERV-W virus you would solve the remyelination problem.

The thing to remember is that MS is a family of conditions and HERV-W may only be relevant to specific sub-types.  The recent research (see below) produced the image at the start of today’s post, where we actually see the microglia (green) mistakenly attacking the healthy myelin on axons (red).

Multiple sclerosis: Endogenous retrovirus HERV-W key to nerve tissue damage

As outlined by first author Dr. David Kremer, the envelope (ENV) protein of the pathogenic human endogenous retrovirus type W (pHERV-W) was found to be a major contributor to nerve damage in MS. In collaboration with research teams in the U.S. and Canada, the authors demonstrated that the ENV protein drives CNS resident microglial cells to contact and damage myelinated axons.                                                                                      

There is a broad repertoire of immunomodulatory drugs that effectively treat the inflammatory aspects of relapsing multiple sclerosis (MS). However, axonal degeneration, which occurs mainly in progressive MS, is still not understood and cannot be treated pharmaceutically. As it is the major factor contributing to clinical disability in MS, it represents an unmet clinical need. A recently completed phase IIb study has demonstrated that anti-pathogenic human endogenous retrovirus type W (pHERV-W) envelope protein (ENV) treatment results in a significant decrease of neurodegenerative brain atrophy in treated MS patients. For these results, the work presented here offers an explanation by demonstrating that, via myeloid cells, pHERV-W ENV directly harms axons.

Axonal degeneration is central to clinical disability and disease progression in multiple sclerosis (MS). Myeloid cells such as brain-resident microglia and blood-borne monocytes are thought to be critically involved in this degenerative process. However, the exact underlying mechanisms have still not been clarified. We have previously demonstrated that human endogenous retrovirus type W (HERV-W) negatively affects oligodendroglial precursor cell (OPC) differentiation and remyelination via its envelope protein pathogenic HERV-W (pHERV-W) ENV (formerly MS-associated retrovirus [MSRV]-ENV). In this current study, we investigated whether pHERV-W ENV also plays a role in axonal injury in MS. We found that in MS lesions, pHERV-W ENV is present in myeloid cells associated with axons. Focusing on progressive disease stages, we could then demonstrate that pHERV-W ENV induces a degenerative phenotype in microglial cells, driving them toward a close spatial association with myelinated axons. Moreover, in pHERV-W ENV-stimulated myelinated cocultures, microglia were found to structurally damage myelinated axons. Taken together, our data suggest that pHERV-W ENV-mediated microglial polarization contributes to neurodegeneration in MS. Thus, this analysis provides a neurobiological rationale for a recently completed clinical study in MS patients showing that antibody-mediated neutralization of pHERV-W ENV exerts neuroprotective effects.

Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (RRMS)

Most MS starts out as so-called Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (RRMS) and so is the focus of much research. An antibody called GNbAC1 has been developed to specifically target the protein MSRV-Env that is produced by the old human endogenous retrovirus type W.

GNbAC1 for RRMS 

In vitro and in vivo studies showed that GNbAC1 neutralizes MSRV-Env, reducing the inflammatory response and allowing the remyelination repair process to restart.

I think this is an excellent example of how to translate complicated science into a practical therapy.  I just hate to think how much money this therapy will cost.

Or just Antivirals?

I did wonder about a less expensive therapy to block the MSRV-Env protein from activating microglia to destroy myelin.  Why not use a relatively cheap antiviral drug to dampen the virus itself, so it does not make the harmful protein?

Unlike most antibiotics, antiviral drugs do not destroy their target pathogen; instead they inhibit their development.

Antiviral drugs normally have to be developed to target a specific virus, but you might just get lucky with an existing drug.

In the case of HIV, a combination of three drugs is used TDF (tenofovir), EFV (efavirenz) and either 3TC (lamivudine) or FTC (emtricitabine).  This therapy has been hugely successful.

The anti-herpes antivirals include valacyclovir (Valtrex), famciclovir (Famvir), and acyclovir (Zovirax).

In the case of Multiple Sclerosis, I did find a study that used acyclovir.  It did not cure the condition, but it did significantly reduce exacerbations.

I am afraid nobody seems to want a cheap drug for MS, when the other only partially effective ones can cost $50,000 a year. Acyclovir is much more expensive in the US than elsewhere but nothing like the price of the new MS drugs.

It may of course be a coincidence that Acyclovir reduces exacerbations in MS and may involve an entirely different mechanism.

Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) beyond MS

Drugs for MS are a huge business for pharmaceutical companies and this is why the research is advanced.

HERVs have been implicated in ALS (motor neuron disease) and schizophrenia.  There is even some research on HERVs and autism.

It is usually the Herpes virus that gets mentioned in the context of autism. It is probably one of hundreds of possible triggers that, when combined with other “hits” and genetic predispositions, may lead to autism.

Any virus can affect gene expression and so any virus has the potential to cause harm to a developing brain.  This is often all "autism" is, the result of some damage at a critical point in the brain's development. That same event in a teenager does no long term harm. 

Herpes virus may be a trigger for autism

“We’re not saying that HSV-2 is responsible for infecting the [fetal] brain and causing autism,” stresses senior author Ian Lipkin, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist at Columbia. Indeed, fetal infection with HSV-2 is so serious that it frequently leads to miscarriages or stillbirths. Rather, Lipkin suspects that HSV-2 is just one among many environmental insults that, when they arrive at a vulnerable point in fetal development in women predisposed to damaging reactions, may trigger ASD in the fetus. That idea comports with a body of previous work, like this Swedish study that found that the hospitalization of a woman for any kind of infection during pregnancy increased the risk of the baby developing ASD by 30%.
Some scientists are skeptical that inflammatory molecules alone could be responsible, in part because of the big changes in brain structure that arise in autistic children in the first 2 years of life, just as symptoms of ASD emerge. For instance, a study published in Nature last week documents abnormal overgrowth of the surface of the brain in 6- to 12-month-old babies who go on to be diagnosed with ASD.

Are the 'viral' agents of MS, ALS and schizophrenia buried in our genome?

Viruses hid themselves in your ancestors' DNA; now they're waking up

What if the missing 'environmental' factor in some of our deadliest neurological diseases were really written in our genome? Researchers explain how viruses ended up in our DNA -- and what puts them in the frame in unsolved diseases like multiple sclerosis.

The enemy within
A whopping 8% of our DNA comes from viruses. Specifically, ones called retroviruses -- not because they're old, but because they reverse the normal process of reading DNA to write themselves into their host's genome.
Retroviruses are old though: they began merging with our earliest, primordial ancestors millions of years ago. Over the millennia, most of their remnants in our DNA -- known as human endogenous retroviruses or HERVs -- have been silenced by mutations. Others, which had evolved to fend off rival viruses, formed the prototypical immune system and to this day protect us from infection.
However, HERVs might also be the missing causative link in major 'unsolved' neurological diseases.
"HERVs have been implicated in the onset and progression of multiple sclerosis [MS], amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ALS] and schizophrenia [SCZ]," says senior author Prof. Patrick Kuery. "Dormant HERVs can be reactivated by environmental factors such as inflammation, mutations, drugs, or infection with other viruses, so could provide a mechanism for their well-established epidemiological link to these disorders."

Full paper: -

Neural Cell Responses Upon Exposure to Human Endogenous Retroviruses

Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) are ancient retroviral elements, which invaded the human germ line several million years ago. Subsequent retrotransposition events amplified these sequences, resulting in approximately 8% of the human genome being composed of HERV sequences today. These genetic elements, normally dormant within human genomes, can be (re)-activated by environmental factors such as infections with other viruses, leading to the expression of viral proteins and, in some instances, even to viral particle production. Several studies have shown that the expression of these retroviral elements correlates with the onset and progression of neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Further studies provided evidence on additional roles for HERVs in schizophrenia (SCZ). Since these diseases are still not well understood, HERVs might constitute a new category of pathogenic components that could significantly change our understanding of these pathologies. Moreover, knowledge about their mode of action might also help to develop novel and more powerful approaches for the treatment of these complex diseases. Therefore, the main scope of this review is a description of the current knowledge on the involvement of HERV-W and HERV-K in neurological disease specifically focusing on the effects they exert on neural cells of the central nervous system.

Importantly, several studies were able to show that inflammation plays a major role in HERV activation 

SCZ is a complex neuropsychiatric disorder characterized by a variety of cognitive, emotional, and perceptual disturbances. Pathophysiologically, SCZ features decreased brain volume, loss of myelin, and altered astrocyte function (Archer, 2010). In contrast to MS and ALS, both HERV-W and HERV-K have been weakly linked to SCZ based on PCR amplification from CSF and post-mortem brains as well as on protein antigenemia (Yolken et al., 2000Karlsson et al., 2001Frank et al., 2005Perron et al., 2008), while another study revealed upregulation of HERV-W ENV transcripts in plasma samples of SCZ patients (Huang et al., 2011). Moreover, a new study provides evidence that, in early stages of this disease, HERV-K methylation in peripheral blood is reduced (Mak et al., 2019). Of note, these observations contradict an earlier report suggesting that HERV-W expression is reduced in SCZ patients (Weis et al., 2007). The disparity between these reports may reflect different experimental approaches or a differential use of anti-psychotic medications in SCZ patients.

We here present collected evidence that endogenous retroviral elements acting either as viral particles or via their proteins influence neural cells in the context of degenerative CNS diseases. Once thought to be primarily involved in cell transformation (Grabski et al., 2019) and inflammation (Perron and Lang, 2010), emerging data suggests a direct role of these elements in glial and neuronal injury, which in fact goes beyond previous descriptions on the activity of a gliotoxin (Menard et al., 1998). In light of additional observations on the role of ERVs in regulating stem cell potential and fate acquisition (Gautam et al., 2017), the findings describing impacts on committed or mature cells of the CNS are probably not too surprising but warrant future investigations, even more so since neural stem cells are also involved in brain pathology and regeneration. Moreover, the currently still unmet clinical need to effectively treat neurodegeneration necessitates novel therapeutic approaches. Whether similar mechanisms also apply to activation of transposable elements implicated in, for example, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS; Almenar-Perez et al., 2019) and to what degree currently used neutralizing antibodies can be exploited in order to prevent neural cell activation and/or neurodegeneration needs to be elucidated in the future. In this regard, it remains to be shown whether HERV-employed signaling pathways and epigenetic silencing mechanisms can be used for biomedical translation.


Figure 1 HERV-mediated effects on neural cells. This illustration summarizes origin and observed molecular effects of HERW-W and HERV-K on cells of the central nervous system. Arrow starting points indicate cellular sources of HERV particles or proteins (red dots), whereas arrowheads point to influenced cell types. Modulated processes are shown in gray boxes, and regulated molecules are highlighted in red next to each cell type. The question mark next to TDP-43 refers to its postulated regulation in neurons. Whether microglia and astroglia respond to HERVs in an auto- and/or paracrine way and whether neurons react to internal and/or extracellular HERVs remains to be shown. OPCs: oligodendroglial progenitor cells; NO: nitric oxide; CRP: C-reactive protein; BDNF: brain-derived neurotrophic factor; DRD3: dopamine receptor D3; TRPC3: short transient receptor potential channel 3; DISC1: disrupted in schizophrenia 1; TDP-43: TAR DNA-binding protein 43.

HERVs, retroviral sequences integrated into the genome during evolution, are now known to represent 8% of the human genome.

These were recently shown to comprise copies that retain potential to express retroviral proteins or particles, and can be abnormally expressed in autoimmune, neurodegenerative, chronic inflammatory diseases, and cancer.
Environmental factors such as specific viral infections were shown to potently activate HERVs under tissue-specific and temporal conditions.
Of several diseases in which abnormal activation and expression of HERV proteins have been reported, studies over recent decades have led to a proof of concept that HERVs play a key role in the pathogenesis of MS and ALS.
HERV-W and HERV-K Env proteins induce pathogenic effects in vitro and in vivo that are relevant to the pathognomonic features of these diseases.
These endogenous retroviruses are potential novel therapeutic targets that are now being addressed with innovative therapeutic strategies in clinical trials.
The causes of multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis have long remained elusive. A new category of pathogenic components, normally dormant within human genomes, has been identified: human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs). These represent ∼8% of the human genome, and environmental factors have reproducibly been shown to trigger their expression. The resulting production of envelope (Env) proteins from HERV-W and HERV-K appears to engage pathophysiological pathways leading to the pathognomonic features of MS and ALS, respectively. Pathogenic HERV elements may thus provide a missing link in understanding these complex diseases. Moreover, their neutralization may represent a promising strategy to establish novel and more powerful therapeutic approaches.

HERVs Expression in Autism Spectrum Disorders


The percentage of HERV-H and HERV-W positive samples was higher among ASD patients compared to HCs, while HERV-K was similarly represented and HERV-E virtually absent in both groups. The quantitative evaluation shows that HERV-H and HERV-W are differentially expressed in the two groups, with HERV-H being more abundantly expressed and, conversely, HERV-W, having lower abundance, in PBMCs from ASDs compared to healthy controls. PMBCs from ASDs also showed an increased potential to up-regulate HERV-H expression upon stimulation in culture, unlike HCs. Furthermore we report a negative correlation between expression levels of HERV-H and age among ASD patients and a statistically significant higher expression in ASD patients with Severe score in Communication and Motor Psychoeducational Profile-3.


Specific HERV families have a distinctive expression profile in ASD patients compared to HCs. We propose that HERV-H expression be explored in larger samples of individuals with autism spectrum in order to determine its utility as a novel biological trait of this complex disorder.

Recent studies suggest that autism spectrum disorders (ASD) result from interactions between genetic and environmental factors, whose possible links could be represented by epigenetic mechanisms. Here, we investigated the transcriptional activity of three human endogenous retrovirus (HERV) families, in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) from Albanian ASD children, by quantitative real-time PCR. We aimed to confirm the different expression profile already found in Italian ASD children, and to highlight any social and family health condition emerging from information gathered through a questionnaire, to be included among environmental risk factors. The presence of increased HERV-H transcriptional activity in all autistic patients could be understood as a constant epigenetic imprinting of the disease, potentially useful for early diagnosis and for the development of effective novel therapeutic strategies.

Overall, the data obtained in the present study lead us to further support the hypothesis that HERV transcriptional activity is influenced by all the factors mentioned above. Additional work is required to determine if HERV-H expression could be proposed as a biological marker, useful for early detection of children at high risk for ASD, before the appearance of clinical symptoms and for the development of effective new therapeutic strategies. To this end, an in-depth characterization of the potential role of HERV-H in ASD is the major objective of a study currently in progress in murine models. Currently, up to 2% of children worldwide are estimated to be diagnosed with an ASD (Pedersen et al., 2014) and the consistent increment in the prevalence of ASD is considered a pressing challenge for the global public health system. Because children represent more than a third of the Albanian population (Albanian Institute of Statistics 2011) autism is a serious socio-economic problem and its early diagnosis could represent a significant improvement in the treatment of the disease. In fact, if the autistic condition is diagnosed early, a growing repertoire of evidence-based therapies can be applied to give children the best possible chance of life.

Etiotropic and Pathogenetic Therapy of Autism Spectrum Disorder: Case Series of 6 Children

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that reveals itself by social communication problems, restrictive/repetitive behavior, and language impairment. ASD is a growing problem in the USA and in the world with no commonly-accepted etiology resulting in the absence of effective methods of treatment. Based on more than 80 scientific publications we are proposing the following understanding of ASD: it is a genetic disorder, in which some changes in DNA are resulting from a congenital mother to fetus transmitted infection and maternal immune activation. The infections and maternal immune activation result in oxidative stress and production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and other mediators. Based on this understanding, we developed a method of long-term etiotropic and pathogenetic therapy tailored to major chronic/latent infections, inflammation and immune system aberration. We present six cases of ASD treatment, which included the antiviral medication Valacyclovir and five nutritional supplements. The presented results are based on five cycles of treatment continued for 5 months. In all six cases the treatment resulted in social communication skills and behavioral improvements well as positive changes in the physical and psychological conditions. These improvements covariated with a tendency to normalization of blood and immune parameters. Social communication skills, behavioral, physical and psychological improvements also positively affected parents whose subjected quality of life increased over course of the treatment. According to parents of these children, the proposed treatment had superior efficacy compared to other types of treatment that their children underwent before.

Valacyclovir improves cognition in bipolar patients

A 4-month course of the oral antiviral agent valacyclovir boosted cognition in herpes simplex virus-1–seropositive patients with bipolar disorder and cognitive impairment in a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial.

Anti herpes Virus–Specific Treatment and Cognition in Schizophrenia: A Test-of-Concept Randomized Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trial


To test our hypothesis that valacyclovir, an antiherpes virus–specific medication, added to antipsychotics (APs) would improve cognitive performance and psychopathology among schizophrenia subjects exposed to neurotropic herpes simplex virus, type 1 (HSV1).


Using a double-blind placebo-controlled design, we randomized 24 HSV1-seropositive schizophrenia subjects to receive either valacyclovir (n = 12) or placebo (n = 12) for 18 weeks in addition to stable doses of APs. Valacyclovir dose was stabilized at 1.5 g twice daily orally. At each visit, subjects were evaluated for severity of psychopathology and side effects using standardized scales and a study-specific semistructured checklist. A computerized neurocognitive battery validated on both schizophrenia and healthy subjects was administered at baseline and follow-up. Intent-to-treat analysis, using linear regression models that included all randomized subjects, were used to examine differential changes in cognition and psychopathology scores over 18 weeks between valacyclovir and placebo, accounting for placebo response.


Valacyclovir group improved in verbal memory, working memory, and visual object learning compared with placebo group. The effect sizes (Cohen’s d) were 0.79 for working memory, 1.14 for immediate verbal memory, and 0.97 for the visual object learning. Psychotic symptom severity did not improve.


Supplemental valacyclovir may alleviate impairments in cognitive domains that are often observed in schizophrenia but not psychotic symptoms in those exposed to HSV1. If replicated, this approach could provide a novel strategy to treat cognitive impairments in a subgroup of schizophrenia subjects who can be reliably identified using a blood test.


There is a great deal going on in the world of MS research and if you have MS you might as well consider becoming an early adopter.

As expected, the research on how these old viruses, that should be dormant in our DNA, might play a role in autism is not very advanced.

Some people with autism do take antiviral drugs and I think their caregivers think this relates to a virus they have acquired recently or comes from the mother. Perhaps it is an unidentified virus from that 8% of your DNA that has become activated?

In MS the story is complex but now we know for sure what the virus is, where it came from and what it does. You can defeat it with a tailor-made antibody called GNbAC1 or perhaps just beat it down a little with the common antiviral drug Acyclovir.

Note that antiviral drugs each only have an effect on certain types of virus.

Do HERVs really materially affect some people with autism, and its big brothers bipolar and schizophrenia? There is some limited evidence that they may.

People who report that their children with autism do indeed improve on an antiviral drug are unlikely to ever know which virus was the problem and it may not be the one they thought it was, but it is not a crazy idea.  If it reduces the symptoms of autism without causing troubling side effects, why not?  It is going to work for most autism? Probably not.

For people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) the science is clear and unambiguous, you need to wipe out the protein called MSRV-Env.

As far as this blog is concerned, we already covered antibiotics in depth.

and today we covered antivirals.  These are the “anti- drugs” that our reader Tanya referred to as not being useful in her case of autism; I think she will be in the majority.  You have to treat your “minority” case of autism, which is what makes it difficult. 

Almost every common autism treatment strategy is misrepresented as a wonder therapy; that is how you sell books, supplements, lab tests and even now I see expensive "training" courses. The reality is somewhat messy and less convenient, but if you read the science great progress does seem to be possible in many cases.

Thursday 17 August 2017

Viruses, Bacteria, Fungi, Parasites and Altered Gene Expression, Relevant to Autism

Today’s post started life as a review of how some viruses affect gene expression and may help cause, or just trigger flare-ups in, some neurological disorders ranging from autism to MS (multiple sclerosis). 
Some people with autism are treated with anti-viral drugs and, anecdotally, some do respond well.  This is not yet an area with hard facts and definitive clinical trials.  
It is actually better to first take a few steps back and consider how all microorganisms can play a role in human health by modifying the gene expression of the host (which is you).  There are four broad categories of microorganism.
Each type of microorganism can be countered by a matching category of pharmaceutical.

·        Antibacterials/antibiotics for bacteria

·        Antifungals to kill or prevent further growth of fungi

·        Antivirals to minimize (but often not eradicate) viruses

·        Antiparasitics to kill parasites  (protists)

All of the above categories of microorganism can affect the expression of multiple genes. By either up or down-regulating important genes at critical times during development, long lasting effects can be created, or there may be just transient effects.
Changes in gene expression likely play a role in many neurological conditions and in particular in what I call “flare-ups”, for example in autism, PANS, PANDAS and indeed schizophrenia.
Not all changes in gene expression are bad. The TSO parasites that do seem to help some people’s autism, by down regulating their immune response, very likely are modifying the host’s gene expression, which then reduces their immune response. This is the mechanism developed by the parasite to protect itself from the host (you) and ensure it is not eradicated.
Steroids affect the expression of multiple genes. When a bacteria of virus triggers PANDAS/PANS the positive effect of steroid therapy may well be by “resetting” the expression of certain important genes.  Here again, even though PANDAS/PANS is now treated clinically in the US, much remains unknown.
For those interested, earlier this summer revised treatment guidelines were published for PANDAS/PANS.

In "
Part I–Psychiatric and Behavioral Interventions," Margo Thienemann, MD, Stanford University and coauthors present consensus guidelines for treating the psychiatric and behavioral symptoms of children with PANS/PANDAS. Symptom improvement is aimed at decreasing suffering, improving functioning, and making it easier for the children to adhere to therapeutic interventions.

In "
Part II–Use of Immunomodulatory Therapies," Jennifer Frankovich, MD, and coauthors provide recommendations to help guide the use of therapies targeting the neuroinflammation and post-infectious autoimmunity that are common in PANS-PANDAS.

In “
Part III–Treatment and Prevention of Infections," Michael Cooperstock, MD, MPH, University of Missouri School of Medicine (Columbia) and coauthors representing the PANS PANDAS Consortium, present a consensus guideline for managing the infection components of these neuropsychiatric conditions.

There is research on what virus/bacteria affects which specific gene, but this area of science is in its infancy.
MS (Multiple Sclerosis) a condition that features faulty remyelination, is likely a much simpler condition than autism and yet nobody knows for sure what causes it. It has been suggested that a virus may be the trigger of at least some types of MS, but researchers are decades away from proving anything. So when it comes to microorganisms and autism, it is mainly a case of speculation and the odd N=1 case study. 

Viral triggers of multiple sclerosis 

The relationship between infections and autoimmune diseases is complex and the mechanisms by which infectious pathogens could trigger MS are likely dynamic, i.e., they might change over time and not be mutually exclusive. Epidemiological observations indicate that viral infections could contribute to MS development not only as triggers of disease exacerbations but also as etiological agents, i.e., long before the disease becomes clinically apparent. The two- to three-folds increased risk of developing MS among individuals with history of IM compared with subjects who acquired EBV without symptoms, the almost universal seropositivity for EBV in adults and children with MS, and the steep and monotonic increase in MS risk with increasing titers of antibodies to EBV in apparently healthy adults could suggest that EBV infection is causally linked to MS development. The mechanisms responsible for this association are far from understood. Moreover, the incidence of IM in Western countries (≥ 5%)  exceeds the prevalence of MS in comparable populations (0.1%) by far (more than 50-fold) suggesting that yet unidentified genetic and/or additional environmental factors determine whether symptomatic EBV infection indeed predisposes to MS.

Although one particular MS-causing agent might still be discovered, current data suggest that multiple infections along with noninfectious environmental factors trigger the development of MS. These factors are likely ubiquitous, i.e., highly prevalent in the general population, and they require a permissive genetic background that predisposes for MS development. Future studies investigating infectious pathogens in a complex and heterogenous disease such as MS will benefit from careful and detailed clinical, pathological, and neuroimaging-based patient characterizations and from reproducibility in different study populations. In addition, novel humanized animal models of autoimmune diseases that are simultaneously permissive for viral pathogens which usually infect only humans  should allow investigation of specific aspects of host–pathogen interactions during autoimmune CNS inflammation in vivo. The integration of these data might eventually allow us to better define the role of viruses in the etiology and pathogenesis of MS and how virus–host interactions could be targeted for MS therapy.  

The ubiquitous human herpesvirus 6 may play a critical role in impeding the brain's ability to repair itself in diseases like multiple sclerosis. These findings may help explain the differences in severity in symptoms that many people with the disease experience
What is still not fully understood is the relationship between the extent of the viral infection in the brain and the severity of diseases like multiple sclerosis and other demyelinating diseases such as leukodystrophies and Vanishing White Matter disease. For example, do the number of infected cells need to reach a certain threshold before OPC function is impeded? Are individuals who have congenital HHV6 more vulnerable to severe forms of these diseases?
"More research is needed to understand by which mechanisms the virus impedes the function of OPCs and what impact this has on the progression of these diseases," said Mayer-Proschel. "But it is clear that HHV6, while not necessarily the cause of demyelinating diseases, is limiting the ability of the brain to repair damage to myelin thereby potentially accelerating the progression of these diseases."  

Mainstream and “Alternative” Research  
Not all published research fits with the current mainstream scientific consensus. The mainstream is clearly moving towards the realization that all kinds of things can affect gene expression. One currently fashionable area is the gut microbiota, as in this article:-

Some researchers develop hypotheses that go much further, like this one regarding autism’s elder brother, schizophrenia.

Many genes have been implicated in schizophrenia as have viral prenatal or adult infections and toxoplasmosis or Lyme disease. Several autoantigens also target key pathology-related proteins. These factors are interrelated. Susceptibility genes encode for proteins homologous to those of the pathogens while the autoantigens are homologous to pathogens' proteins, suggesting that the risk-promoting effects of genes and risk factors are conditional upon each other, and dependent upon protein matching between pathogen and susceptibility gene products. Pathogens' proteins may act as dummy ligands, decoy receptors, or via interactome interference. Many such proteins are immunogenic suggesting that antibody mediated knockdown of multiple schizophrenia gene products could contribute to the disease, explaining the immune activation in the brain and lymphocytes in schizophrenia, and the preponderance of immune-related gene variants in the schizophrenia genome. Schizophrenia may thus be a “pathogenetic” autoimmune disorder, caused by pathogens, genes, and the immune system acting together, and perhaps preventable by pathogen elimination, or curable by the removal of culpable antibodies and antigens.

And this one by the same author:-

Herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) can promote beta-amyloid deposition and tau phosphorylation, demyelination or cognitive deficits relevant to Alzheimer's disease or multiple sclerosis and to many neuropsychiatric disorders with which it has been implicated. A seroprevalence much higher than disease incidence has called into question any primary causal role. However, as also the case with risk-promoting polymorphisms (also present in control populations), any causal effects are likely to be conditional. During its life cycle, the virus binds to many proteins and modifies the expression of multiple genes creating a host/pathogen interactome involving 1347 host genes. This data set is heavily enriched in the susceptibility genes for multiple sclerosis (P = 1.3E-99) > Alzheimer's disease > schizophrenia > Parkinsonism > depression > bipolar disorder > childhood obesity > chronic fatigue > autism > and anorexia (P = 0.047) but not attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a relationship maintained for genome-wide association study data sets in multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease. Overlapping susceptibility gene/interactome data sets disrupt signalling networks relevant to each disease, suggesting that disease susceptibility genes may filter the attentions of the pathogen towards particular pathways and pathologies. In this way, the same pathogen could contribute to multiple diseases in a gene-dependent manner and condition the risk-promoting effects of the genes whose function it disrupts.

Back to Autism
As we have seen previously in this blog, autism is usually polygenic, meaning very many different genes are affected. This does not mean that anything is necessarily defective in those genes, it just means those genes are either over or under-expressed, this means you end up with either too much, or too little, of whatever that gene makes.
So for a polygenic condition, where in one person hundreds of your 22,000 individual genes are likely over or under-expressed, we really do not want anything to come along and further miss-express critical genes.
Many genes are inter-related and so miss-expression of one can trigger a wave of further effects. This can be either good or bad.
The science is still in its infancy, so it will be many decades before it is translated into medicine, but we can certainly already say what may be happening.
The interactome is a relatively new word to describe the whole set of molecular interactions in a particular cell.
 For example, the well-known bacteria H.pylori that can cause stomach ulcers:- 

Over 1,200 interactions were identified between H. pylori proteins, connecting 46.6% of the proteome.

Just this one common bacterium affects half of the entire set of proteins expressed by a genome (the so called proteome).
So we should not be surprised if some bacteria or viruses have a bad, or indeed good, effect on autism.
This also bring us back to the idea of the holobiont and hologenome, which was introduced in an earlier post. The idea is that what really matters in human health is not just your genome, but the totality of what surrounds you, so that means everything living in you, on you and around you. That includes bugs, bacteria and also those of your pet dog.
All of these factors influence how your genes are expressed. During evolution your body has got used to things and if you make rapid changes, you may indeed upset the balance. So while chlorinating water may have an overall good effect, by killing all those bacteria your body had been expecting, there may be some negative effects. Humans evolved living close to animals, be it dogs or farm animals. We saw earlier that pregnant mothers who live with pets produce children with a lower incidence of asthma.
We also reviewed the hygiene hypothesis, which basically says that a bit of dirt is good for you.
So this post, rather than narrowing things down, really broadens them out.  Everything affects everything.  If you rock the evolutionary boat, don’t be surprised if strange things happen.
Taking Somali refugees to live in Sweden increased their incidence of autism. Is that really a surprise? Recall the Somali autism clusters in Sweden and San Diego.
Apparently, the Amish in the US have a low prevalence of autism. Is that really a surprise?  One reader recently suggested sending autistic people to live with the Amish, as a therapy. The possibly effective therapy would have been to send the parents to live with the Amish for a couple of years before the child was born.
So perhaps we should consider much autism, and indeed conditions like asthma, as collateral damage from modern living?  Life expectancy has risen, infant mortality has been greatly reduced, but the downside is that we now have much more autoimmune disease and that includes autism.

Autism and Microorganisms
Now back to autism and the four categories of microorganism.
Can parasites cause autism? Actually we know they can; for example cerebral malaria can result in it. But how often is this case? Probably very rarely.
Can fungi cause autism? Perhaps, but we know from many examples (including in the comments on this blog) that some fungi can make autism worse.  Is the fungus candida albicans growing in the intestines really an issue in most autism? I seriously doubt it, but oral thrush/candidiasis caused by inhaled steroids does seem to make autism worse and is reversible by removing the fungus. The effect seems more likely to be from the candida than the steroid, since inhaled steroids only mildly enter the bloodstream.
Can bacteria cause autism? Well streptococcus bacteria can cause OCD and cognitive impairment (PANDAS).
Can a virus cause autism? Antonio Persico, one of the more serious autism researchers, has suggested that some autism may be caused by polyomaviruses transmitted at conception from father to mother.

Can the rubella virus cause autism? Some serious people do see a possibility, even in people who have been vaccinated.

These both remain controversial hypotheses; but can viruses cause flare ups in autism, later in life? This is also controversial, but I think quite plausible.  It all depends which genes the virus causes to get miss-expressed.
Enough is known to say that odd changes in autism may potentially be triggered by the appearance of specific types of microorganism, but quite possibly most microorganisms have little, or no, negative effect in most people. So it is not a case of all viruses/bacteria will make autism worse, but it is likely true that some may have the potential to do so.
In trying to figure out possible causes of autism flare-ups, due consideration should be given to microorganisms.  This is another case of personalized medicine, with all its potential pitfalls.
The big risk is potentially becoming obsessed with non-existing bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites.  

Back to Antivirals and Autism 
Finally we come back to where the original idea for this post came from; is there any basis of the use of antiviral drugs to treat autism?
DAN-type doctors do prescribe the antiviral drugs Valtrex, Famvir or Acyclovir.

Antiviral drugs do not destroy their target virus they just inhibit its development.
Most of the antiviral drugs now available are designed to help deal with HIV, herpes viruses, the hepatitis B and C viruses, and influenza A and B viruses.
You identify a virus by looking for antibodies to that specific virus in the blood. You can test for antibodies that suggest if the infection is new and active, called IgM antibodies and you can test for antibodies that show the infection occurred sometime in the past, called IgG antibodies.
You would need to know which virus to test for, the common ones are:-

HSV 1:  Herpes Simplex Virus 1 causes canker sores in the mouth

HSV 2: Herpes Simplex Virus 2 causes genital herpes.

HHV 6: Human Herpes Virus 6 is commonly known as Roseola virus

EBV: Epstein-Barr Virus, causes the illness known as infectious mononucleosis



“We’re not saying that HSV-2 is responsible for infecting the [fetal] brain and causing autism,” stresses senior author Ian Lipkin, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist at Columbia. Indeed, fetal infection with HSV-2 is so serious that it frequently leads to miscarriages or stillbirths. Rather, Lipkin suspects that HSV-2 is just one among many environmental insults that, when they arrive at a vulnerable point in fetal development in women predisposed to damaging reactions, may trigger ASD in the fetus.” 

Conclusion: Rate of contact with HSV1 and HSV2 assessed by the mean of detection of specific antibodies was similar between children with ASD and healthy controls.

Conclusion: Levels and seropositivity rate of antibodies to HHV-6 and HHV-8 do not differ between children with ASD and controls.
CONCLUSION: Titre and seropositivity rate of antibodies to CMV and EBV are similar between children with ASD and healthy controls.

Valtrex seems to be the antiviral most commonly prescribed in autism.  This is an off-label use, meaning Valtrex is not approved to treat autism.  Valtrex is active against most species in the herpesvirus family. In descending order of activity:

So we might assume the people with autism who respond to Valtrex might have one of the above, or similar, viruses. Unless Valtrex has some other modes of action, unrelated to being an anti-viral, which remains a possibility. 

Mitochondrial Disease and Viral Infections
Since this post is already full of speculation, I will add some more. Some people say that their child’s mitochondrial disease was preceded by a viral infection, so how likely is it that a virus can trigger mitochondrial disease and then autism?  Again, this is not something anyone can prove, one way or the other, but it does look like your mitochondria are particularly vulnerable to viruses.
The virus will exploit the mitochondria to further its own development, perhaps in doing so, in some people with a pre-disposition, this triggers a process to chronic mitochondrial dysfunction.  Read the papers below for more on this subject.


Mitochondrial dynamics influences mitochondrial and cellular functions.
Mitochondrial dynamics is affected during viral infections.
Viruses exploit mitochondrial dynamics and mitophagy to benefit infectious process.
Virus-altered mitochondrial dynamics determines the outcome of infection.
Disruption of mitochondrial dynamics promotes viral pathogenesis.

If a virus can trigger mitochondrial disease, as we have seen a vaccination can, is there any possible merit in using antivirals years later?
Is there merit treating regressive autism, which is likely to be mitochondrial disease, immediately with antiviral drugs?
Is there merit treating autism flare-ups, that do not respond to PANDAS/PANS therapies, with antiviral drugs?
Is there merit treating MS (multiple sclerosis) immediately on diagnosis with antiviral drugs? Would MS flare-ups respond to antivirals?

My take
If I was to develop MS tomorrow, given there is currently no cure, I think I might want to try an antiviral, just in case it might actually do some good.
My son with classic autism did have a PANDAS-like regression last year, with sudden onset OCD and strange verbalizations. It all went away after a couple of weeks, having been treated as a PANDAS flare-up, as documented in an old post on this blog. If after a viral infection he developed a sudden onset regression I would certainly reread this post.
Readers of this blog with a clear case of mitochondrial disease might want to check for the commonly implicated viruses, since if one was never suppressed this might be something to consider.
So do antivirals have a place in treating autism?  There is no hard evidence to support their use, but I would not at all be surprised if a minority do genuinely benefit. I think the most likely group might be those who have a sudden regression from near typical. As with PANDAS/PANS, the sooner the treatment commences, the better the likely outcome. 
Could antivirals help control flare-ups that can occur in those already with autism? They could well help; ideally you would confirm the presence of the virus first.   

I recently watched an expert clinician talking about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); he was very open about his opinion that science likely only understands about 30% of the disorder. When it comes to autism I think science may be only at the 10% mark. As a result you have to be very careful about saying anything definitive.
We know that very many things contribute to the prevalence of autism.  It looks more than likely that viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites may, on occasion, play a role in some people’s autism.
But, just like we know that in some people vaccination can trigger mitochondrial disease and result in an autism diagnosis, this does not mean it is a common cause of autism. Vaccinations have saved hundreds of millions of lives, but it has long been known that they can have side effects and that is why there is a large industry-funded compensation scheme in the US.
So while parasites can in some circumstances lead to autism, this does not mean feeding bleach to children with autism is a clever idea. Nor does filling them with antibiotics to treat a non-existing bacteria.
You can see why mainstream medicine is not eager to treat autism.
Nonetheless, applying that meagre sounding 10% of understanding can yield results, when applied with caution.