Exploring the potential of variola virus infection of cynomolgus macaques as a model for human smallpox

Peter B. Jahrling, Lisa E. Hensley, Mark J. Martinez, James W. LeDuc, Kathleen H. Rubins, David A. Relman, John W. Huggins

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121 Scopus citations


Smallpox virus (variola) poses a significant threat as an agent of bioterrorism. To mitigate this risk, antiviral drugs and an improved vaccine are urgently needed. Satisfactory demonstration of protective efficacy against authentic variola will require development of an animal model in which variola produces a disease course with features consistent with human smallpox. Toward this end, cynomolgus macaques were exposed to several variola strains through aerosol and/or i.v. routes. Two strains, Harper and India 7124, produced uniform acute lethality when inoculated i.v. in high doses (109 plaque-forming units). Lower doses resulted in less fulminant, systemic disease and lower mortality. Animals that died had profound leukocytosis, thrombocytopenia, and elevated serum creatinine levels. After inoculation, variola was disseminated by means of a monocytic cell-associated viremia. Distribution of viral antigens by immunohistochemistry correlated with the presence of replicating viral particles demonstrated by electron microscopy and pathology in the lymphoid tissues, skin, oral mucosa, gastrointestinal tract, reproductive system, and liver. These particles resembled those seen in human smallpox. High viral burdens in target tissues were associated with organ dysfunction and multisystem failure. Evidence of coagulation cascade activation (D dimers) corroborated histologic evidence of hemorrhagic diathesis. Depletion of T cell-dependent areas of lymphoid tissues occurred, probably as a consequence of bystander apoptotic mechanisms initiated by infected macrophages. Elaboration of cytokines, including IL-6 and IFN-γ, contribute to a cytokine storm formerly known as "toxemia." A more precise understanding of disease pathogenesis should provide targets for therapeutic intervention, to be used alone or in combination with inhibitors of variola virus replication.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15196-15200
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number42
StatePublished - Oct 19 2004
Externally publishedYes

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