A headstrong feline virus

The Feline ParvoVirus (FPV) attacks cells in the digestive tract and the precursor cells of bone marrow in cats. It triggers feline panleukopenia, a disease which generally leads to few symptoms in healthy, adult cats but which can lead to developmental problems in the cerebellum of kittens infected just before or just after birth.  However, during the feline parvovirus outbreak in 2013, vets reported very unusual nervous symptoms in adult cats infected by FPV. They asked the autopsy department of the University of Liège to investigate. What were the conclusions of this investigation? It is not impossible that the virus has evolved and become capable of reactivating the cell cycle (at least its initial phases) in the neurons, a mechanism which they need to multiply. This is an observation which could change our perception of the parvoviruses in general and raises questions as to the use of this type of virus for therapeutic ends, particularly in the fight against cancer.

Hiding in the shadows, invisible to the naked eye, viruses are everywhere. Thankfully, not all are dangerous, but all have the same objective: to infect a body which will enable them to multiply. Indeed, in contrast to bacteria, viruses are incapable of multiplying by themselves. They need to defeat the cells of another organism in order to use their finely-tuned machinery to replicate their genome


The parvovirus family includes a certain number of viruses which use animals or humans to multiply. Among them, is the feline parvovirus, or FPV. As its name indicates, it attacks felines, in our countries more specifically the domestic cat. It triggers a disease known as feline panleukopenia. ‘FPV infects dividing cells, particularly cells in the digestive tract and the precursor cells to white cells in bone marrow’, explains Mutien Garigliany, from the animal pathology department (FARAH - Faculty of Veterinary Medicine) at the University of Liège. ‘This virus generally provokes few symptoms in healthy adult cats.  But it reduces the white cell count, which can be dangerous for more fragile cats who will find it harder to defend themselves against other infections’, continues the researcher. Moreover, in kittens with many dividing cells, FPV attacks the nerve cells, principally in the cerebellum. ‘We can thus observe nervous symptoms in young kittens following infection. Traditionally, however, this is not seen in adults, whose neurons are no longer dividing’, specifies Mutien Garigliany.

A unique mutation in this strain of FPV

Feline panleucopaenia is a very common disease which can be well controlled through vaccination. But, as with intestinal flu in humans, for example, there are annual changes in its incidence, and there are regular outbreaks of parvovirus. In 2013, an otherwise normal feline panleukopenia epidemic drew the attention of vets in the field. ‘They were seeing a number of adult cats presenting nervous symptoms following infection, which is extremely unusual in cats of this age’,  states the scientist. ‘They therefore asked us to check whether FPV had infected the nervous tissues of these cats’. The researchers used PFV virus markers to highlight the tissues in which the virus was multiplying in those cats presenting nervous symptoms. Their analyses confirmed the presence of FPV in the cerebral neurons of these cats. ‘This was really surprising because parvoviruses need to infect dividing cells, which is not the case of these neurons’ continues the vet. ‘We therefore envisaged different hypotheses which we investigated with colleagues at ULg and ULB’. Initially, the scientists wanted to check whether this parvovirus had a different genome to the standard strain responsible for feline panleukopenia. ‘It is a virus with a relatively stable DNA, but one which evolves nonetheless. We developed new sequencing techniques to amplify all the viruses present in the cerebral tissues of the cats analysed. This enabled us to reveal a unique mutation in this strain of the FPV virus’, states Mutien Garigliany. This mutation is not present in any other virus of this type in the world. ‘We also checked whether these nervous symptoms could be connected to co-infection with FPV and another virus, but in most of the cases, there was no co-infection. This enabled us to conclude that the symptoms were probably indeed due to the presence of FPV’, continues the researcher. Following this observation, it would be interesting to isolate this virus which carries a unique mutation and to study it in greater detail, or to insert this mutation in a classic strain of the FPV virus and see how it behaves in vitro. ‘This could be, for example, the subject of a doctoral thesis for one of the teams involved in this study’, indicates Mutien Garigliany. 

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