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Bertzbach, Luca D.; Laparidou, Maria; Härtle, Sonja; Etches, Robert J.; Kaspers, Bernd; Schusser, Benjamin and Kaufer, Benedikt B. (2018): Unraveling the role of B cells in the pathogenesis of an oncogenic avian herpesvirus. In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 115, No. 45: pp. 11603-11607

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Marek's disease virus (MDV) is a highly oncogenic alphaherpesvirus that causes immunosuppression, paralysis, and deadly lymphomas in chickens. In infected animals, B cells are efficiently infected and are thought to amplify the virus and transfer it to T cells. MDV subsequently establishes latency in T cells and transforms CD4(+) T cells, resulting in fatal lymphomas. Despite many years of research, the exact role of the different B and T cell subsets in MDV pathogenesis remains poorly understood, mostly due to the lack of reverse genetics in chickens. Recently, Ig heavy chain J gene segment knockout (JH-KO) chickens lacking mature and peripheral B cells have been generated. To determine the role of these B cells in MDV pathogenesis, we infected JH-KO chickens with the very virulent MDV RB1B strain. Surprisingly, viral load in the blood of infected animals was not altered in the absence of B cells. More importantly, disease and tumor incidence in JH-KO chickens was comparable to wild-type animals, suggesting that both mature and peripheral B cells are dispensable for MDV pathogenesis. Intriguingly, MDV efficiently replicated in the bursa of Fabricius in JH-KO animals, while spread of the virus to the spleen and thymus was delayed. In the absence of B cells, MDV readily infected CD4(+) and CD8(+) T cells, allowing efficient virus replication in the lymphoid organs and transformation of T cells. Taken together, our data change the dogma of the central role of B cells, and thereby provide important insights into MDV pathogenesis.

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