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Epstein-Barr Virus Protein Can ‘Switch on’ Risk Genes for Autoimmune Diseases

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When infection first occurs in adolescence or young adulthood, EBV can lead to a syndrome of infectious mononucleosis.

Photo: Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Infection with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), the cause of infectious mononucleosis, has been associated with subsequent development of systemic lupus erythematosus and other chronic autoimmune illnesses, but the mechanisms behind this association have been unclear. Now, a novel computational method shows that a viral protein found in EBV-infected human cells may activate genes associated with increased risk for autoimmunity. Scientists supported by NIAID reported their findings Apr. 16 in Nature Genetics.

“Many cases of autoimmune illness are difficult to treat and can result in debilitating symptoms. Studies like this are allowing us to untangle environmental and genetic factors that may cause the body’s immune system to attack its own tissues,” said NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci. “A better understanding of the complex causes of autoimmunity promises to lead to better treatment and prevention options.”

EBV infection is nearly ubiquitous in the human population worldwide. Most people acquire EBV in early childhood, experience no symptoms or only a brief, mild cold-like illness, and remain infected throughout their lives while remaining asymptomatic. When infection first occurs in adolescence or young adulthood, EBV can lead to a syndrome of infectious mononucleosis characterized by prolonged fever, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes and fatigue. This syndrome, also known as “mono” or the “kissing disease,” generally resolves with rest and only rarely causes serious complications.

When EBV infects human immune cells, a protein produced by the virus—EBNA2—recruits human proteins called transcription factors to bind to regions of both the EBV genome and the cell’s own genome. Together, EBNA2 and the human transcription factors change the expression of neighboring viral genes.

In the current study, the researchers found that EBNA2 and its related transcription factors activate some of the human genes associated with the risk for lupus and several other autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, type 1 diabetes, juvenile idiopathic arthritis and celiac disease.

“Because EBV is most often encountered in early childhood, avoiding infection is practically impossible,” said Dr. Daniel Rotrosen, director of NIAID’s Division of Allergy, Immunology and Transplantation. “However, now that we understand how EBV infection may contribute to autoimmune diseases in some people, researchers may be able to develop therapies that interrupt or reverse this process.”

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

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Associate Editor: Carla Garnett
Carla.Garnett@nih.gov

Staff Writers:

Eric Bock
Eric.Bock@nih.gov

Dana Talesnik
Dana.Talesnik@nih.gov

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