A new study examines the connection between Epstein-Barr and seven autoimmune diseases
By Amy Ratner, Science and Medical News Analyst
The virus that causes mononucleosis might also increase the risk for celiac disease and six other autoimmune conditions, a new study suggests.
Epstein-Barr is a common virus that causes “mono,” a condition marked by extreme fatigue, sore throat, body aches and swollen lymph nodes. It most often affects teenagers and young adults.
A protein produced by the virus binds to multiple locations along the human genome that are associated with celiac disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and type 1 diabetes, according to a new study published in the journal, Nature Genetics.
Researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center started looking at the connection between the virus and lupus years ago, proposing that the immune response to the virus plays a role in development of lupus. “Today’s study adds weight to those lupus findings and adds six more well-known diseases to the list,” the hospital said in a press release.
“While there is no direct impact today for celiac disease patients, this discovery has opened another window into how symptomatic celiac disease is triggered, a finding that may be exploited to develop future therapies,” said Marie Robert, Beyond Celiac chief scientific officer.
Turning genes on and off
Transcription factor: Proteins that help direct cell growth, division and death. They also control cell migration and organization. About 1,600 human transcription factors do their work along the human genome.
The study shows that the seven seemingly unrelated diseases share abnormal transcription factors, proteins that turn genes on and off, affected by a protein from the Epstein-Barr virus. When the transcription factors attach themselves to specific portions of the genetic code, the related disease appears to rise, according to the study.
“Now, using genomic methods that were not available 10 years ago, it appears that components made by the virus interact with human DNA in the places where the genetic risk is increased,” said John Harley, M.D., director of the Center for Autoimmune Genomics and Etiology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
“This same cast of characters is a villain in multiple immune-related diseases,” said Matthew Weirauch, Ph.D., a computational biologist at the center. “So, if we could develop therapies to stop them from doing this, then it would help multiple diseases.”
No vaccine for mono
There is currently no vaccine to prevent highly-contagious mononucleosis, which is sometimes called “kissing disease” because it is spread through saliva. This study might prompt more work in research being done to develop a vaccine, study authors said.
Their study of the virus and its connection to autoimmune disease was based on massive sets of genetic data and its analysis.
More than 90 percent of the population is infected with the Epstein-Barr virus, which remains in people for their entire lives. Mono can cause feelings of exhaustion, which usually resolve in several weeks. However, some people exposed to the virus have no symptoms.
Meanwhile, celiac disease affects about 1 percent of the population, indicating that additional factors would affect risk. Included are HLA-DQ2 and DQ8 genes, which are found in about 99 percent of those who have celiac disease.
It’s not clear how many cases of celiac disease or the other autoimmune diseases can be traced to the mono virus, the study said, noting that genomic analysis of many more patients will be needed to make reliable estimates. And the role of the virus is likely to vary across the diseases. Harley said in lupus and multiple sclerosis, it could be a large percentage, but researchers don’t have “a sense of proportion” for the other diseases.
Viruses and celiac disease
The study makes a fundamental discovery about the role environmental factors such as the Epstein-Barr virus play in the development of autoimmune diseases, Robert said. " In addition to accelerating work on the development of a vaccine to prevent Epstein-Barr infection, this work will stimulate additional research on the role of viruses in unleashing chronic disease," she noted.
The role of viruses is being investigated in ongoing celiac disease research. Infection with the common but otherwise harmless reovirus can cause the immune system to overreact to gluten and trigger development of celiac disease, according to research from the University of Chicago and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
You can read more about the link between the mono virus and celiac disease here and here watch a video about the study and ongoing research here.
You can help advance celiac disease research by sharing your story on Go Beyond Celiac.