Even if you've never heard of norovirus, chances are that you've head of its effects. From outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness on cruise ships to Chipotle's foodborne illness issues, norovirus's wrath is far-reaching and serious. For most, a norovirus infection is an undesirable but temporary condition. For the elderly, immunocompromised, and for children, an infection can lead to much more serious complications. In the developing world, about 200,000 deaths per year can be attributed to norovirus infection (Lopman et al. 2016).
Why haven't we done more to learn more about norovirus infection and how to prevent spreading the virus? In part, it's because there haven't been any methods to study the virus in vitro. Scientists have developed genetic assays to detect norovirus in food, water, and other samples, but there hasn't been a way to determine the infectivity of the virus if the genome was detected. Essentially, the virus's DNA can be present in food or water, but that doesn't mean that the virus can infect its host. This has been an issue for anyone trying to determine the risk that norovirus presents in a particular environment... until now. Scientists at Baylor University have reported a cell line that can propagate the virus. If this result is replicable, huge strides can be made in the understanding of human norovirus pathogenesis. Labs may now be able to make stocks of the infectious virus and perform experiments evaluating its infectivity, response to therapeutics, etc.. It may even help with the development of a norovirus vaccine.
Although this result is promising, it's just the beginning for norovirus culturing assays. We still need to replicate these experiments and confirm results. In the mean time, wash your hands and wash your produce thoroughly.
Lopman BA, Steele D, Kirkwood CD, Parashar UD (2016) The Vast and Varied Global Burden of Norovirus: Prospects for Prevention and Control. PLoS Med 13(4): e1001999. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001999
K. Ettayebi et al., Science 10.1126/science.aaf5211 (2016).