Last updated May 29, 2018 at 9:56 am
Epstein-Barr virus is infamous for causing mononucleosis – aka the kissing disease – but its impact may be even more far reaching and damaging.
Scientists at Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation in the US report that Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), known as the virus that causes “mono” or glandular fever, also increases the risk of some people developing seven other major diseases, including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes.
In a far-reaching study they showed that a protein produced by EBV, called EBNA2, binds to multiple locations along the human genome that are associated with these diseases.
Their findings shed new light on how environmental factors, such as viral or bacterial infections, poor diet, pollution or other hazardous exposures, can interact with the human genetic blueprint and have disease-influencing consequences. However, they say its full impact could take years to explore.
“This discovery is probably fundamental enough that it will spur many other scientists around the world to reconsider this virus in these disorders,” said Dr John Harley, Director of the Center for Autoimmune Genomics and Etiology.
“As a consequence, and assuming that others can replicate our findings, that could lead to therapies, ways of prevention, and ways of anticipating disease that don’t now exist.”
How the Epstein-Barr virus causes disease
EBV is very common and no vaccine exists to prevent infection. More than 90 per cent of people are infected by age 20 in developed countries and by age two in less-developed nations. The virus remains with them for their entire lives.
Mononucleosis, which causes weeks of extreme fatigue, is the most common illness caused by EBV. It was nicknamed the “kissing disease” years ago because the virus spreads primarily via contact with saliva.
EBV works in unusual ways. Normally when viral and bacterial infections strike, our bodies respond by commanding B cells within our immune systems to crank out antibodies to battle the invaders. However, EBV invades the B cells themselves, re-programs them and takes over control of their functions.
The researchers say it is unclear how many cases of the seven diseases listed in the study can be traced to prior EBV infection. More genomic analyses involving many more patients with these diseases will be required to make reliable estimates.
However, their breakthrough identification of specific transcription factors connected to EBV infections opens new lines of study that could accelerate efforts to find cures.
And they already have taken a huge next step. They applied the same analytic techniques to tease out connections between all 1600 known transcription factors and the known gene variants associated with more than 200 diseases. Intriguing associations were documented involving 94 conditions.
“Our study has uncovered potential leads for many other diseases, including breast cancer,” Harley says. “We cannot possibly follow up on all of these, but we are hoping that other scientists will.”
The seven diseases identified as linked to EBV in the recent study were systemic lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease and type 1 diabetes.
The paper published in Nature Genetics.
Video courtesy of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.