Human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) is a herpes virus that infects and is carried by 70-100% of the world's population. During its evolution, this virus has developed mechanisms that allow it to survive in an immunocompetent host. For many years, HCMV was not considered to be a major human pathogen, as it appeared to cause only rare cases of HCMV inclusion disease in neonates. However, HCMV is poorly adapted for survival in the immunosuppressed host and has emerged as an important human pathogen in AIDS patients and in patients undergoing immunosuppressive therapy following organ or bone marrow transplantation. HCMV-mediated disease in such patients has highlighted the possible role of this virus in the development of other diseases, in particular inflammatory diseases such as vascular diseases, autoimmune diseases and, more recently, with certain forms of cancers.
Current research is focused on determining whether HCMV plays a causative role in these diseases or is merely an epiphenomenon of inflammation. Inflammation plays a central role in the pathogenesis of HCMV. This virus has developed a number of mechanisms that enable it to hide from the cells of the immune system and, at the same time, reactivation of a latent infection requires immune activation. Numerous products of the HCMV genome are devoted to control central functions of the innate and adaptive immune responses. By influencing the regulation of various cellular processes including the cell cycle, apoptosis and migration as well as tumour invasiveness and angiogenesis, HCMV may participate in disease development. Thus, the various drugs now available for treatment of HCMV disease (e.g. ganciclovir, acyclovir and foscarnet), may also prove to be useful in the treatment of other, more widespread diseases.