Scientists Uncover Links Between MS and Epstein-Barr Virus

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Key Takeaways

  • Recent research has shown strong links between the Epstein-Barr virus and multiple sclerosis

  • Scientists are now getting a better understanding of how EBV infection might upset immune responses, possibly leading to MS

  • Further research might lead to ways of preventing or treating the illness

WEDNESDAY, June 19, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- The discovery that the Epstein-Barr virus might be a major driver of multiple sclerosis has re-energized research into the autoimmune disease.

Now, investigators in the U.K. and Sweden believe they might be closer to understanding how the virus, which also causes mononucleosis, might help spur MS.

“The discovery of the link between Epstein-Barr Virus [EBV] and multiple sclerosis has huge implications for our understanding of autoimmune disease, but we are still beginning to reveal the mechanisms that are involved," said study senior author Dr. Graham Taylor, an associate professor of tumor immunology at the University of Birmingham in England.

"Our latest study shows that following Epstein-Barr virus infection there is a great deal more immune system misdirection, or cross-reactivity, than previously thought," he explained in a university news release.

Reporting recently in the journal PLOS Pathogens, Taylor and his team analyzed blood samples taken from people diagnosed with MS and compared those samples to blood taken from people who'd recently recovered from EBV-linked illness.

At issue is the immune system's antibody responses to the presence of EBV. Prior research had determined that one EBV-targeted antibody found in the blood, called EBNA1, also recognizes certain proteins that appear in the central nervous system, potentially explaining how EBV could end up triggering MS-linked damage.

In the new study, Taylor's group have found that EBV also seems to activate another key immune system player, T-cells.

These T-cells appear to recognize certain brain proteins, pointing to another potential link to MS.

These "cross-reactive" T-cells were spotted in blood samples from people with MS but also in folks without the illness, Taylor's team noted.

So, differences in how such cells behave between people might help explain the EBV-MS connection, the researchers theorized.

“Our detection of cross-reactive T-cells in healthy individuals suggests that it may be the ability of these cells to access the brain that is important in MS," reasoned study lead author Dr. Olivia Thomas, an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

“We have shown that the human immune system cross-recognizes a much broader array of EBV and central nervous system proteins than previously thought, and that different patterns of cross-reactivity exist," Taylor added. "Knowing this will help identify which proteins are important in MS and may provide targets for future personalized therapies."

More information

Find out more about multiple sclerosis at the National MS Society.

SOURCE: University of Birmingham, news release, June 6, 2024

What This Means For You

Scientists believe they're getting closer to understanding how the common Epstein-Barr virus might trigger MS.

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