University researcher awarded $3.9 million grant to study herpes virus vaccine

No vaccine currently exists for cytomegalovirus, or CMV, one of the most common causes for disability in children.

Illustrated by Abby Adamski.

Abby Adamski

Illustrated by Abby Adamski.

Natalie Cierzan

A University of Minnesota researcher was awarded a $3.9 million grant earlier this month to continue his research on a herpes virus and possibly develop a vaccine.

Cytomegalovirus, or CMV, is a type of herpes virus that affects both adults and children. It is one of the most common reasons for disabilities in children, with close to 40,000 infants in the U.S. born with CMV each year, researchers said. 

Mark Schleiss, a University professor in the Department of Pediatrics and primary recipient of the grant, has worked on CMV research for almost 30 years. Part of his interest came from his personal experiences with family members affected by CMV.

“I know how difficult it is for families, how important it is to do new research to try to improve the outcomes of pregnancies and children,” he said.

CMV commonly affects children while they’re still in the womb, Schleiss said. 

“Most children are actually born and appear to be normal and healthy,” he said. “I often talk about CMV being like Zika without the mosquito.” 

The most common symptom is deafness, but others include seizures, developmental delay and cerebral palsy, Schleiss said. 

“You aren’t going to get it riding the Green Line,” Schleiss said about contracting CMV. Contraction requires close personal contact, like sexual intercourse or saliva exchange.

Schleiss said that young women who have children can get CMV from their toddlers in daycare. One of the most common ways infants can contract the virus is from breastfeeding, he said. 

“In the U.S., it’s almost embarrassingly not known by women who are considering having kids,” said Craig Bierle, a key collaborator to the research and an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics. 

Newborn babies are screened for a wide variety of rare diseases that happen on a smaller scale than CMV, but testing for CMV is not routinely done.

“We can potentially screen women for CMV. Women and children are at greatest risk when they contract the virus first time at pregnancy,” Bierle said.

Education and screening is more common and extensive in Europe, he said. 

“That’s in part because there’s not a lot you can potentially do to prevent CMV right now, because there isn’t a vaccine,” Bierle said.

CMV is a complicated virus that rejects the immune system’s response, he said. Many potential vaccines have failed to get past additional trials. 

With the grant money, they will be able to work on creating a vaccine, Schleiss said. The researchers will use guinea pigs because their reproductive systems are similar to humans.

Joseph Neglia, a professor and head of the pediatrics department, said the vaccine would be like a live virus, but without the capability of creating the virus in the child. 

As a doctor who works with child cancer patients who have weak immune systems, this was an important feature of the vaccine, Neglia said.

“CMV is kind of the forgotten viral infection in many people,” he said. “From a pediatric standpoint, this is potentially one of these real steps forward in medicine that you put on the timeline.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Craig Bierle’s name.