To evade the immune system, some viruses hide in cells of their host and persist there. In medical terminology, this state is referred to as a latent infection. If the immune system becomes weakened or if certain conditions change, the viruses become active again, begin to proliferate and destroy the host cell. A team of scientists led by Dr. Tobias Stöger of the Institute of Lung Biology and Prof. Dr. Heiko Adler, deputy head of the research unit Lung Repair and Regeneration at Helmholtz Zentrum München, now report that nanoparticles can also trigger this process.
“From previous model studies we already knew that the inhalation of nanoparticles has an inflammatory effect and alters the immune system,” said study leader Stöger. Together with his colleagues Heiko Adler and Prof. Dr. Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin, he showed that “an exposure to nanoparticles can reactivate latent herpes viruses in the lung.”
Specifically, the scientists tested the influence of nanoparticles typically generated by fossil fuel combustion in an experimental model for a particular herpes virus infection. They detected a significant increase in viral proteins, which are only produced with active virus proliferation. „Metabolic and gene expression analyses also revealed patterns resembling acute infection,“ said Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin, head of the research unit Analytical BioGeoChemistry (BGC). Moreover, further experiments with human cells demonstrated that Epstein-Barr viruses are also ‘awakened’ when they come into contact with the nanoparticles.
Potential approach for chronic lung diseases
In further studies, the research team would like to test whether the results can also be transferred to humans. „Many people carry herpes viruses, and patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis are particularly affected,“ said Heiko Adler. “If the results are confirmed in humans, it would be important to investigate the molecular process of the reactivation of latent herpes viruses induced by particle inhalation. Then we could try to influence this pathway therapeutically.”
Special cell culture models shall therefore elucidate the exact mechanism of virus reactivation by nanoparticles. “In addition,” Stöger said, ”in long-term studies we would like to investigate to what extent repeated nanoparticle exposure with corresponding virus reactivation leads to chronic inflammatory and remodeling processes in the lung.”
In 2015 another group at the Helmholtz Zentrum München demonstrated how the Epstein-Barr virus hides in human cells. In March 2016 researchers also showed that microRNAs silence immune alarm signals of cells infected with the Epstein-Barr virus.
Sattler, C. et al. (2016): Nanoparticle exposure reactivates latent herpesvirus and restores a signature of acute infection. Particle and Fibre Toxicology, DOI 10.1186/s12989-016-0181-1
The Helmholtz Zentrum München, the German Research Center for Environmental Health, pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich and has about 2,300 staff members. It is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 18 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members.
The Comprehensive Pneumology Center (CPC) is a joint research project of the Helmholtz Zentrum München, the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Clinic Complex and the Asklepios Fachkliniken München-Gauting. The CPC’s objective is to conduct research on chronic lung diseases in order to develop new diagnosis and therapy strategies. The CPC maintains a focus on experimental pneumology with the investigation of cellular, molecular and immunological mechanisms involved in lung diseases. The CPC is a site of the Deutsches Zentrum für Lungenforschung (DZL).
The Analytical BioGeoChemistry (BGC) is an independent research unit of the Department of Environmental Sciences with a strong collaborative networking within environmental and health research at Helmholtz Zentrum München. BGC´s expertise is in analytical chemistry (integrated high resolution separation, spectrometry and spectroscopy) and (bio)informatics for describing the chemical diversity of complex systems (metabolomics). Non-targeted and taylored metabolomics are developed at BGC since 2004 and since our goals are the description and process understanding on a molecular structural level with emphasis on the discovery of new compounds and compound classes. The interdisciplinary projects at BGC focus on the structure elucidation of new biomarkers and bioactive compounds in microbial / viral interactions as well as in environmental and health-related microbiomes.
The research objective of the Institute of Experimental Genetics (IEG) is to elucidate the causes and pathogenesis of human diseases. Due to its prominent role in interdisciplinary and international consortia, the IEG is a global leader in the systemic study of mouse models for human diseases and the elucidation of involved genes. The main focus is on metabolic diseases such as diabetes. The IEG is part of the Helmholtz Diabetes Center (HDC).
The German Center for Lung Research (DZL) pools German expertise in the field of pulmonology research and clinical pulmonology. The association’s head office is in Giessen. The aim of the DZL is to find answers to open questions in research into lung diseases by adopting an innovative, integrated approach and thus to make a sizeable contribution to improving the prevention, diagnosis and individualized treatment of lung disease and to ensure optimum patient care.
Contact for the media:
Department of Communication, Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health (GmbH), Ingolstädter Landstr. 1, 85764 Neuherberg – Phone: +49 89 3187 2238 – Fax: +49 89 3187 3324 – E-mail:
Scientific contact at Helmholtz Zentrum München:
Dr. Tobias Stöger, Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health (GmbH), Comprehensive Pneumology Center Ingolstädter Landstraße 1, 85764 Neuherberg- Tel. +49 89 3187 3104 – E-mail: