The immune cells are responsible for ensuring the safety of the body. To do this, they patrol the entire body to hunt for ‘foreign bodies’ both externally, in the case of a virus or a bacterium, and internal, as would be in the case of cancer, and, once the threats are found, they join forces to destroy these. The problem is that these immune cells are not always infallible and sometimes they are mistaken as an ‘enemy’ which triggers autoimmune diseases, in which the immune system attacks its own body. Several studies have shown that Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection, responsible for infectious mononucleosis or the ‘kissing disease’ is behind the development of many autoimmune diseases and now, researchers at the Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati (USA), have discovered why.
Avoiding an Epstein-Barr Virus infection is almost impossible
As explained by Daniel Rotrosen, director of the Division of Allergy, Immunology and Transplantation of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a body of the National Institutes of Health of the United States (NIH) responsible for financing this research published in the magazine “Nature Genetics”, “given that EBV is usually transmitted in most cases in early childhood, avoiding infection is practically impossible. However, given that we now know how infection by this virus can contribute to autoimmune diseases, researchers could develop therapies to interrupt or reverse this process.”
About infectious mononucleosis or “kissing disease”
The Epstein-Barr virus is one of the most widespread viruses in the world. It is estimated that more than 90% of the population of developed countries get the virus before reaching the age of 20.
Once the infection is contracted, the virus remains in the body throughout life but in the vast majority of cases, the infection is completely asymptomatic.
However, if an individual contracts the virus during adolescence, it can lead to the development of infectious mononucleosis, a disease characterized by fever, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, and fatigue. But still, the disease heals spontaneously and usually does not lead to serious complications.
Epstein-Barr Virus can trigger seven autoimmune diseases – Here is how!
When EBV infects humans’ immune cells, it produces a protein called EBV nuclear 2 antigens (EBNA2) which ‘recruits’ the transcription factors of the infected cell to bind to the genome of both the virus itself and the host cell.
It does so to use the molecular and genetic machinery of the cell to produce more copies of itself and to continue spreading the infection. For this, EBNA2 and transcription factors activate the expression of viral genes.
However, it seems that this genetic alteration does not end here as EBV can alter the genetic expression of infected cells and increase the risk of developing seven autoimmune diseases.
These diseases are due to the genetic alteration conducted by EBV
In short, it seems that in its work to widespread in the body, the EBV ends up activating some genes associated with an increased risk of developing different autoimmune diseases.
As the study pointed out, an “infection with EBV is not the only factor that contributes to the development of these seven autoimmune diseases. Many of the regulatory genes that contribute to lupus and other autoimmune disorders do not interact with EBNA2, and some individuals who have these regulatory genes activated do not end up suffering from any of these diseases.”
The researchers are sure that Epstein-Barr Virus, involved in infectious mononucleosis or “kissing disease”, is also involved in these seven autoimmune diseases as it causes alteration at genes levels but they do not completely understand the whole process but they’ll keep on studying this process.