Human embryonic stem cell-derived neurons are highly permissive for varicella-zoster virus lytic infection

Tomohiko Sadaoka, Cindi L. Schwartz, Labchan Rajbhandari, Arun Venkatesan, Jeffrey I. Cohen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Varicella-zoster virus (VZV) is highly cell associated when grown in culture and has a much higher (4,000- to 20,000-fold increased) particle-to-PFU ratio in vitro than herpes simplex virus (HSV). In contrast, VZV is highly infectious in vivo by airborne transmission. Neurons are major targets for VZV in vivo; in neurons, the virus can establish latency and reactivate to produce infectious virus. Using neurons derived from human embryonic stem cells (hESC) and cell-free wild-type (WT) VZV, we demonstrated that neurons are nearly 100 times more permissive for WT VZV infection than very-early-passage human embryonic lung cells or MRC-5 diploid human fibroblasts, the cells used for vaccine production or virus isolation. The peak titers achieved after infection were ~10-fold higher in human neurons than in MRC-5 cells, and the viral genome copy number-to-PFU ratio for VZV in human neurons was 500, compared with 50,000 for MRC-5 cells. Thus, VZV may not necessarily have a higher particle-to-PFU ratio than other herpesviruses; instead, the cells previously used to propagate virus in vitro may have been suboptimal. Furthermore, based on electron microscopy, neurons infected with VZV produced fewer defective or incomplete viral particles than MRC-5 cells. Our data suggest that neurons derived from hESC may have advantages compared to other cells for studies of VZV pathogenesis, for obtaining stocks of virus with high titers, and for isolating VZV from clinical specimens.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere01108-17
JournalJournal of virology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018


  • Particle/PFU ratio
  • Varicella-zoster virus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Insect Science
  • Virology

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