Rimjhim Agarwal

Does chronic chikungunya infection resemble an autoimmune disease?

Funded: February 2024
Funded by: The generosity of the Rosemary Kraemer Raitt Foundation Trust

Chikungunya virus (CHIKV) is a neglected tropical disease that causes annual outbreaks in Latin America and Asia. Initially, most people infected with CHIKV experience mild symptoms such as fever, rash and joint pain. However, 25 percent of infected people (primarily women) end up with debilitating chronic symptoms that resemble arthritis. So far, the scientific and public health communities have neglected to investigate the cause(s) behind long-lasting symptoms.

The Weiskopf Lab at LJI has shown that T cells, specifically a subset called ‘helper’ T cells, appear to be abundant only in patients who suffer from persistent arthritis-like symptoms, despite no evidence of any virus present in the body. I propose that these T cells mistakenly recognize our own proteins, “self-proteins,” as foreign invaders due to their similarity with CHIKV proteins. This misleading signal triggers a release of harmful inflammatory molecules, potentially leading to autoimmunity. My project aims to identify the self-proteins recognized by harmful helper T cells in CHIKV patients with persistent symptoms.

SPARKing Impact: I aim to understand if infection with Chikungunya virus can trigger chronic, harmful, autoimmune response. Ultimately, my project will deepen our understanding of long-lasting effects of CHIKV infection and hopefully contribute to the development of new therapeutics.