Varicella zoster virus-induced autophagy in human neuronal and hematopoietic cells exerts antiviral activity

Johanna Laura Heinz, Daniëla Maria Hinke, Maimaitili Muyesier, Jiayi Wang, Ira K.D. Sabli, Michelle Mølgaard Thomsen, Ensieh Farahani, Fanghui Ren, Lili Hu, Thomas Zillinger, Anna Grahn, Joanna von Hofsten, Georges Mgm Verjans, Søren Riis Paludan, Abel Viejo-Borbolla, Vanessa Sancho-Shimizu, Trine Hyrup Mogensen

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Autophagy is a degradational pathway with pivotal roles in cellular homeostasis and survival, including protection of neurons in the central nervous system (CNS). The significance of autophagy as antiviral defense mechanism is recognized and some viruses hijack and modulate this process to their advantage in certain cell types. Here, we present data demonstrating that the human neurotropic herpesvirus varicella zoster virus (VZV) induces autophagy in human SH-SY5Y neuronal cells, in which the pathway exerts antiviral activity. Productively VZV-infected SH-SY5Y cells showed increased LC3-I-LC3-II conversion as well as co-localization of the viral glycoprotein E and the autophagy receptor p62. The activation of autophagy was dependent on a functional viral genome. Interestingly, inducers of autophagy reduced viral transcription, whereas inhibition of autophagy increased viral transcript expression. Finally, the genotype of patients with severe ocular and brain VZV infection were analyzed to identify potential autophagy-associated inborn errors of immunity. Two patients expressing genetic variants in the autophagy genes ULK1 and MAP1LC3B2, respectively, were identified. Notably, cells of both patients showed reduced autophagy, alongside enhanced viral replication and death of VZV-infected cells. In conclusion, these results demonstrate a neuro-protective role for autophagy in the context of VZV infection and suggest that failure to mount an autophagy response is a potential predisposing factor for development of severe VZV disease.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere29690
JournalJournal of Medical Virology
Pages (from-to) e29690
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jun 2024


  • CNS infection
  • acute retinal necrosis
  • autophagy
  • innate immunity
  • varicella zoster virus


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