Inflicting nasty nausea and abominable abdominal cramps, gastroenteritis-causing norovirus is awful in real life – and awfully hard to study in a dish in a lab.
But research into the virus, at least, looks as though it’s about to get less painful. A team from Houston, Texas grew intestinal cells in a manner that more closely mimicked a real human gut, and found many strains of the virus needed bile to invade and replicate. They reported their work in the journal Science.
The human norovirus is the most common cause of food-borne gastroenteritis in the world. For most, the vomiting and diarrhoea it brings tend to dissipate in a day or two. In young, elderly and immune-compromised patients, though, it can be lethal.
And despite the virus first being visualised in 1972, when it was snapped by an electron microscope that could pick out the nano-sized particles, scientists since have had trouble unravelling its mechanisms.
The norovirus spreads like wildfire through a workplace or school but stubbornly refuses to infect cells in a laboratory.
The problem, biologists suspected, is that cells in a dish don’t really reflect how cells work in a body. Often just a couple of cell types are grown in a 2-D film, which lack interactions with other cells and molecules found in the body.