January 3, 2003
Clarion-Ledger | Hypothesis on West Nile confirmed: Methodist Rehab scientists first to cite effect on spinal cord
By Pamela Berry
Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer
Read this story on The Clarion-Ledger Web site
About two months after Mississippi had its last reported death from the West Nile virus, local researchers announced they were making progress in determining how the mosquito-borne illness attacks the human body.
On Thursday, scientists at the Methodist Rehabilitation Center said their hypothesis that the virus targets the gray matter of the spinal cord has been confirmed through pathological research.
Details on the recent findings will be reported in the next edition of The Lancet Infectious Diseases, a prestigious international medical journal, said Dr. Dobrivoje Stokic, director of the Center for Neuroscience and Neurological Recovery at Methodist Rehab.
MRC researchers said the data, discovered after conducting tests on tissue samples taken from the bodies of West Nile virus victims, bolsters what they clinically observed in patients treated at Methodist Rehab.
"Our article in Lancet is significant because it is the first to include pathological evidence that indicates the West Nile virus attacks the spinal cord in humans and can cause acute flaccid paralysis similar to polio," Stokic said.
Earlier this year, MRC scientists were the first to report that the West Nile virus was causing polio-like paralysis in some of its victims.
Their discovery lead the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to warn physicians and public health officials to be careful when treating patients who suffer from severe muscle weakness or paralysis, saying West Nile virus should be ruled out as a possible cause before beginning treatment for conditions that mimic those symptoms.
Prior to the findings, national guidelines emphasized that West Nile virus was an attack on the brain and could cause encephalitis and meningitis. Although this remains true, the recovery center's research shows the virus can also attack the motor neurons of the spinal cord that control muscle functions, causing severe muscle weakness.
The latest findings resulted from pathological research conducted by a team of scientists and Dr. Jonathan Fratkin, a researcher in the Department of Pathology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
Fratkin said tests conducted on four West Nile victims showed they'd all experienced a "devastating injury to the spinal cord."
The next step, Fratkin said, it to find proof of the virus in the spinal cord cells of a victim.
"The missing piece is to show conclusively the presence of the West Nile virus in this tissue," Fratkin said. "There is still work to be done."
Researchers said their goal is to gather as much information as possible about how the virus targets humans so better long-term treatment methods can be developed.
Stokic said they also hope their latest findings will aid in securing funding for further West Nile virus.
The scientists said their research should aid doctors in treating the next round of West Nile victims expected to appear in the summer months.
There were 230 reported deaths due to the West Nile virus in the United States in 2002. Ten of those were in Mississippi, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site.
"Most of the arboviruses tend to be recurrent or sporadic," Dr. Art Leis, CNNR senior scientist and project lead investigator, said of the possibility of Mississippi experiencing future outbreaks of the virus. "We can expect occasional outbreaks but hopefully they will be small."