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Epstein-Barr Virus… Lupus Catalyst?

EBV and I go way back. I mean, way, way back…to like…the 90’s. That is when EBV and I first met. I was a young, naive 11 year old with a sweet disposition and a bleeding disorder. I had come home from dance class and didn’t feel well. My mother didn’t think much of it, just another run-of-the-mill winter flu bug. The concern set in when the fever hit, the body aches, swollen glands and the debilitating fatigue. I was out of school (and dance class) for over a month. And when I went back to school – things were never the same again.

EBV, or Epstein-Barr Virus, was my lupus catalyst. It was the virus that changed the course of my life forever. Now, I can’t give it all the credit, my doctors did tell me that my system was just waiting to break down (I bruised like a peach!). However, it was just that little push, that proverbial “straw” that sent my immune system into a carnivorous frenzy. For me, like most individuals who contract EBV, the virus turned into mononucleosis and when the mono went away, my immune system mistakenly kept attacking my own tissue. Talk about self-deprecation – my cells need therapy.

When I started doing research on EBV, I had no idea that many others had gone through the same experience. Moreover, there are others in the lupus community that have no idea about the EBV and lupus connection. So, I thought I would shed a little light on what many believe is one of the sparks that can lead to the firestorm of SLE.

For some time now, medical professionals have had a deep suspicion that the Epstein-Barr Virus (named after pathologist Professor Michael Anthony Epstein who discovered and published on the existence of the virus in 1961), may be related to the development of systemic lupus erythematosus, as well as particular forms of cancer, HIV, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome, multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune disorders.

Although the link between lupus and EBV first popped up in 1971, not until 2005 did a study associated with the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) help confirm the connection. The study explains how the virus may activate the disease and how, through this discovery, some cases of lupus could possibly be prevented in the future. In their 10 year study, they used serial blood samples from military recruits in the U.S. as well as samples from the Oklahoma Clinical Immunology Laboratory, which included blood donations from family members of patients that were analyzed as well. Researchers identified military individuals who developed lupus and crossed referenced their sample from a decade before. The researchers studied changes in the blood of people who developed lupus later in life. In turn, they were able to identify when people with lupus began to make self-destructive antibodies that damaged tissue in the joints, skin, kidneys, lungs, brain and blood and blood vessels.

What they discovered was the immune system, having been revved up to attack EBV, mistook different systems of the body for part of the virus and produced antibodies (or auto-antibodies) against the bodies own protein. This phenomenon of foreign antigens sharing structural similarities with self-antigens and causing the immune system to recognize the cells as foreign is called molecular mimicry, and has been linked to a slew of different diseases, most often rheumatic fever, where people produce antibodies to proteins in the heart valves in response to a strep bacterial infection. However, this is the first time molecular mimicry has been found to play a critical role in lupus.

So what does this mean for the future? Dr. Judith James, M.D., Ph.D. of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City, seems to think that this study can provide further insight into not only how lupus begins but for treating and possibly preventing the disease through vaccinations against EBV. She states, “If we could identify susceptible people at the right point, (perhaps) we could stop this response from happening.” How exciting to think that with this information certain individuals may be able to side-step this “lupus catalyst” land mine altogether. Now, please take into consideration that in most people, EBV does not lead to lupus. However, it can increase the odds of developing lupus if an individual has a genetic predisposition.

This is just one more step in the right direction to understanding and peeling away this complicated and multi-layered onion we call lupus. And every stinky, teary-eyed step counts. Back to top    


Sources: niams.nih.gov/News_and_Events/Spotlight_on_Research/2005/trigger_lupus, en.wikipedia.org, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

Author:  Kelli Roseta

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