Merkel Cell Polyomavirus Infection of Animal Dermal Fibroblasts

J Virol. 2018 Jan 30;92(4):e01610-17. doi: 10.1128/JVI.01610-17. Print 2018 Feb 15.


Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) is the first polyomavirus to be associated with human cancer. Mechanistic studies attempting to fully elucidate MCPyV's oncogenic mechanisms have been hampered by the lack of animal models for MCPyV infection. In this study, we examined the ability of MCPyV-GFP pseudovirus (containing a green fluorescent protein [GFP] reporter construct), MCPyV recombinant virions, and several MCPyV chimeric viruses to infect dermal fibroblasts isolated from various model animals, including mouse (Mus musculus), rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), rat (Rattus norvegicus), chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta), patas monkey (Erythrocebus patas), common woolly monkey (Lagothrix lagotricha), red-chested mustached tamarin (Saguinus labiatus), and tree shrew (Tupaia belangeri). We found that MCPyV-GFP pseudovirus was able to enter the dermal fibroblasts of all species tested. Chimpanzee dermal fibroblasts were the only type that supported vigorous MCPyV gene expression and viral replication, and they did so to a level beyond that of human dermal fibroblasts. We further demonstrated that both human and chimpanzee dermal fibroblasts produce infectious MCPyV virions that can successfully infect new cells. In addition, rat dermal fibroblasts supported robust MCPyV large T antigen expression after infection with an MCPyV chimeric virus in which the entire enhancer region of the MCPyV early promoter has been replaced with the simian virus 40 (SV40) analog. Our results suggest that viral transcription and/or replication events represent the major hurdle for MCPyV cross-species transmission. The capacity of rat dermal fibroblasts to support MCPyV early gene expression suggests that the rat is a candidate model organism for studying viral oncogene function during Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) oncogenic progression.IMPORTANCE MCPyV plays an important role in the development of a highly aggressive form of skin cancer, Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC). With the increasing number of MCC diagnoses, there is a need to better understand the virus and its oncogenic potential. However, studies attempting to fully elucidate MCPyV's oncogenic mechanisms have been hampered by the lack of animal models for MCPyV infection. To pinpoint the best candidate for developing an MCPyV infection animal model, we examined MCPyV's ability to infect dermal fibroblasts isolated from various established model animals. Of the animal cell types we tested, chimpanzee dermal fibroblasts were the only isolates that supported the full MCPyV infectious cycle. To overcome the infection blockade in the other model animals, we constructed chimeric viruses that achieved robust MCPyV entry and oncogene expression in rat fibroblasts. Our results suggest that the rat may serve as an in vivo model to study MCV oncogenesis.

Keywords: Merkel cell polyomavirus; animal dermal fibroblasts; viral life cycle.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens, Viral, Tumor / metabolism*
  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell / virology
  • DNA Replication
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Female
  • Fibroblasts / metabolism*
  • Fibroblasts / virology
  • Gene Expression
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Merkel cell polyomavirus / pathogenicity*
  • Mice
  • Pan troglodytes
  • Polyomavirus Infections / virology
  • Primates
  • Rabbits
  • Rats
  • Skin Neoplasms / virology
  • Tumor Virus Infections / virology
  • Virus Replication*


  • Antigens, Viral, Tumor