Research Article: Retrograde axonal transport of rabies virus is unaffected by interferon treatment but blocked by emetine locally in axons

Date Published: July 20, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Margaret A. MacGibeny, Orkide O. Koyuncu, Christoph Wirblich, Matthias J. Schnell, Lynn W. Enquist, Anthony Lawrence Cunningham.


Neuroinvasive viruses, such as alpha herpesviruses (αHV) and rabies virus (RABV), initially infect peripheral tissues, followed by invasion of the innervating axon termini. Virus particles must undergo long distance retrograde axonal transport to reach the neuron cell bodies in the peripheral or central nervous system (PNS/CNS). How virus particles hijack the axonal transport machinery and how PNS axons respond to and regulate infection are questions of significant interest. To track individual virus particles, we constructed a recombinant RABV expressing a P-mCherry fusion protein, derived from the virulent CVS-N2c strain. We studied retrograde RABV transport in the presence or absence of interferons (IFN) or protein synthesis inhibitors, both of which were reported previously to restrict axonal transport of αHV particles. Using neurons from rodent superior cervical ganglia grown in tri-chambers, we showed that axonal exposure to type I or type II IFN did not alter retrograde axonal transport of RABV. However, exposure of axons to emetine, a translation elongation inhibitor, blocked axonal RABV transport by a mechanism that was not dependent on protein synthesis inhibition. The minority of RABV particles that still moved retrograde in axons in the presence of emetine, moved with slower velocities and traveled shorter distances. Emetine’s effect was specific to RABV, as transport of cellular vesicles was unchanged. These findings extend our understanding of how neuroinvasion is regulated in axons and point toward a role for emetine as an inhibitory modulator of RABV axonal transport.

Partial Text

Unlike most nervous system pathogens, which are either accidental or opportunistic, some neuroinvasive viruses have evolved strategies to enter and exit the nervous system. One successful strategy is that of rabies virus (RABV), a neuroinvasive human and animal pathogen of the Rhabdoviridae family. A zoonotic rabies infection begins with the bite of an infected animal into a muscle, followed by spread of virus particles through peripheral nervous system (PNS) somatic motor neurons and into the central nervous system (CNS). Spread of the infection from the CNS to salivary glands facilitates transmission to other hosts [1]. Nevertheless, the end result of CNS infection is a fatal encephalitis in humans and most mammals. A distinct but equally effective strategy is used by alpha herpesviruses (αHV) of the Herpesviridae family (e.g. human herpes simplex virus type 1 and 2 (HSV-1 and 2) and swine pseudorabies virus (PRV)) in their natural and non-natural hosts. These viruses replicate in peripheral epithelia prior to invading the innervating PNS neurons where they establish life-long latent infections. Unlike RABV, αHV rarely spread to the CNS in immunocompetent natural hosts. However, latent αHV infections undergo stress-induced reactivation, which can lead to peripheral herpetic lesions (e.g. cold sores) that facilitate inter-host spread. Despite their distinct clinical pathologies, both RABV and αHV must invade axons, something most viruses do not do. In addition, the infectious particles must travel long distances to reach the viral replication sites in the PNS/CNS cell bodies. How these distinct neuroinvasive viruses infect the nervous system efficiently remains a question of significant interest.

Nervous system infection is usually a dead end for many viruses; the host dies and viral transmission is terminated. Yet viruses of the Rhabdoviridae family and the alpha herpesvirinae subfamily, have evolved strategies that exploit neuronal biology to efficiently infect the nervous system and still preserve host-to-host transmission. Recent work has revealed that RABV hijacks the neurotrophin signaling pathway, and αHVs repurpose the axon damage response to invade peripheral nervous system axons [7,16]. Both strategies achieve a common goal: the efficient dynein-mediated retrograde transport of viral particles from axon terminus to cell body where viral replication ensues. Due to the extreme spatial separation of axons from cell bodies, the axon is a neuronal sub-compartment that senses external stimuli and mounts independent local responses. An outstanding question is do such axonal responses regulate or limit axonal infection by two distinct neuroinvasive viruses?