Mononucleosis (mono), also known as the “kissing disease” due to its ability to spread through saliva, is a common viral infection on college campuses and worldwide.
Mononucleosis is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which is estimated to infect 90 percent of people in the U.S. by age 20 and 90 percent of the people in developing countries by the age of two. Ninety-eight percent of the world’s population carries EBV, since once it infects, it remains in a person for the rest of their lives.
EBV causes mononucleosis 90 percent of the time it infects someone, leading to a variety of symptoms such as extreme fatigue that lasts for weeks, fever and sore throat. Because mono has never been life-threatening, research for vaccines and treatment against EBV has been limited.
However, scientists have recently discovered that EBV can also be linked to several other more serious diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease and type 1 diabetes. In total, these diseases affect approximately eight million people in the U.S.
A study published in the journal Nature Genetics and led by scientists John Harley, Leah Kottyan and Matthew Weirauch from the Center for Autoimmune Genomics and Etiology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital details this finding.
It turns out that EBV enters the human body and infects B cells. B cells are immune cells that respond to infection by producing antibodies, which target the pathogen for degradation. But in the case of EBV, upon infection, the virus attacks the B cells and takes over the cell’s control system. The virus tricks the cells into producing viral transcription factors instead of the cell’s own proteins. Transcription factors are small proteins that bind to DNA and turn genes on and off.
These viral transcription factors cause different diseases depending on where in the cell’s DNA it binds to. For example, when it binds close to a location known to be a significant risk factor for lupus, the risk for lupus was found to increase.
The implications of this study are enormous. Since EBV is found to cause such serious diseases, vaccines and medications are under development in hopes to remedy not only mononucleosis, but also many other related diseases.
The discoveries about EBV also provide new perspectives on how to possibly treat lupus, multiple sclerosis and other aforementioned serious diseases.
The impact of the virus on the different diseases is rather varied. In lupus and multiple sclerosis, the virus accounts for a relatively large percentage of those cases. For the other diseases, the proportion is not quite clear.
The research team at Cincinnati Children’s hospital believes that their findings go far beyond EBV, possibly into the scope of diseases such as breast cancer.
The research team has explained that they are currently working on making their data, results and the new algorithms they had created for this project publicly available, so other teams of scientists can use their findings as a foundation for more in-depth, disease-specific experimentation.