Norovirus — the highly contagious gastrointestinal illness best known for spreading rapidly on cruise chips, in nursing homes, schools and other densely populated spaces — kills an estimated 200,000 people annually, mostly in the developing world. There’s no treatment or vaccine to prevent the illness, and scientists have understood little about how the infection gets started.
Now, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have shown, in mice, that the virus infects a rare type of intestinal cell called a tuft cell, so named because each cell sports a cluster of hairlike extensions on its surface. While tuft cells are few in number, the scientists’ findings indicate that once the virus strikes, such cells multiply the virus quickly and set off severe infections.
The research, published April 12 in Science, suggests that targeting tuft cells with a vaccine or a drug may be a viable strategy for preventing or treating norovirus infections.