Epstein-Barr virus — the virus causing the kissing disease or mononucleosis — is eyed as a risk factor for contracting seven other major diseases. This is what the research team at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center reported. The Epstein-Barr virus is contracted by kissing or by the oral transfer of saliva. Apparently, once the Epstein-Barr virus infects the body it stays there forever.
Epstein-Barr virus and mononucleosis
The Epstein-Barr virus belongs to the herpes family, Herpesviridae. It contains DNA that bears 85 genes and is surrounded by a nucleocapsid. Apart from the nucleocapsid, the virus is further bounded by a protein tegument and an outermost layer of a lipid envelope. The envelope has glycoprotein projections, which are crucial for the virus during its infection of the host cell.1 B cells, the immune cells producing antibodies, are ought to destroy them. However, the Epstein-Barr virus can outwit them by a slick mechanism. The virus invades the B cell, reprograms it, and makes it “follow” its “commands”. The virus is known for causing mononucleosis or the kissing disease. The common symptoms include fever, fatigue, sore throat, rash, and swollen lymph nodes, especially in the neck.
Epstein-Barr virus and the seven major diseases
According to the study led by three scientists, John Harley, Leah Kottyan, and Matthew Weirauch, the Epstein-Barr virus infection has been implicated to seven unrelated serious diseases.2 Previous studies by Dr. Harley and his team have already connected Epstein-Barr virus with the increased risk of developing systemic lupus erythematosus years ago. Recently, however, they found that the virus could also augment the risk of developing other serious diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and juvenile idiopathic arthritis.3 A person contracting the Epstein-Barr virus has a greater risk of developing them. This is because the virus produces a protein, Epstein–Barr virus nuclear antigen 2 (EBNA-2), that interacts with the human DNA, especially at genetic risk variants. 2 A genetic risk variant pertains to a variant in the DNA genome that has a potential to cause disease(s).
Epstein-Barr virus and future research
Dr. Harley and his team suspect that the EBNA2 protein from the Epstein-Barr affects a set of transcription factors. Accordingly, what the seven seemingly unrelated diseases share in common is a set of dysfunctional transcription factors, each affected by the EBNA2 protein.2 When the activity of transcription factors deviate from what they are supposed to do, the host cell (such as B cell) would not be able to carry out its normal function. This, in turn, could progress to certain diseases. With their recent finding, Dr. Harley and his team are optimistic that further intensive research could direct to finding better therapies and preventive methods such as vaccines against Epstein-Barr virus infection.
This recent finding suggests that contracting Epstein-Barr virus can lead to multiple diseases apart from mononucleosis. Therefore, this calls for more studies that aim at finding better cures and preventive measures. Currently, there is no vaccine against Epstein-Barr virus; being able to boost our immunity against the virus may help mitigate the risk to many other diseases, such as those mentioned above.
— written by Maria Victoria Gonzaga
1Odumade, O.A., Hogquist, K.A., & Balfour Jr., H.H. (2011). “Progress and Problems in Understanding and Managing Primary Epstein–Barr Virus Infections”. American Society for Microbiology. 24 (1): 193–209. doi:10.1128/CMR.00044-10
2 Harley, J.B., Chen, X., Pujato, M., Miller, D., Maddox, A., Forney, C., Magnusen, A.F., Lynch, A., Chetal, K., Yukawa, M., Barski, A., Salomonis, N., Kaufman, K.M., Kottyan, L.C., & Weirauch, M.T. (2018). “Transcription factors operate across disease loci, with EBNA2 implicated in autoimmunity.” Nature Genetics. DOI: 10.1038/s41588-018-0102-3
3 Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. (2018). ‘Mono’ Virus Linked to Seven Serious Diseases. Retrieved from https://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/news/release/2018/mono-virus.