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Scientists already knew that when a virus containing or producing DNA enters a cell in the body it is detected by a protein called cGAS. This in turn produces a small signalling molecule called cGAMP which acts as what's known as a second messenger, activating other elements of the body's immune response. Now, the Oxford team have discovered that as some viruses replicate, they incorporate cGAMP, meaning that as they infect new cells the cGAMP immediately prompts an immune response.
Professor Jan Rehwinkel from the MRC Human Immunology Unit, within Oxford University's Radcliffe Department of Medicine, explained: 'We hypothesised that as the virus replicated, cGAMP was incorporated and carried to the next cell to be infected. This may not have been spotted before because in the lab researchers tend to use cells that are free of cGAS and therefore unable to produce cGAMP.