Remember that time you got mono—the “kissing disease”—back in college? Turns out, it could come back to haunt you in other ways.
According to a new study in Nature Genetics, the mono-causing Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) increases the risks for some people of developing seven other major diseases.
The seven diseases include:
- systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
- multiple sclerosis (MS)
- rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
- juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA)
- inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- celiac disease
- type 1 diabetes
According to the authors, the EBNA2 protein, which is produced by the EBV, connects to multiple locations along the human genome that are linked to the diseases.
The researchers say that EBV can turn on risk genes for autoimmune diseases such as lupus.
“Because EBV is most often encountered in early childhood, avoiding infection is practically impossible,” said Daniel Rotrosen, M.D., director of the Division of Allergy, Immunology and Transplantation at NIAID. “However, now that we understand how EBV infection may contribute to autoimmune diseases in some people, researchers may be able to develop therapies that interrupt or reverse this process.”
EBV has also been linked to cancers of the lymphatic system.
A lot of people have EBV, the authors added. In the U.S., more than 90 percent of the population has it by the age of 20. In less-developed nations, the same percentage of people acquire it by the age of two.
“This discovery is probably fundamental enough that it will spur many other scientists around the world to reconsider this virus in these disorders,” said John Harley, MD, who heads up the Center for Autoimmune Genomics and Etiology (CAGE) at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “As a consequence, and assuming that others can replicate our findings, that could lead to therapies, ways of prevention, and ways of anticipating disease that don’t now exist.”
There is no EBV vaccine available.
According to David Pisetsky, a professor of medicine at the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C., the report shouldn’t be cause for alarm.
“In modern life, everyone has been exposed and infected with Epstein-Barr,” he told WebMD. “And if 99 percent of people have been exposed to Epstein-Barr, and only 0.1 percent have lupus, it means there really must be other factors at play that affect risk.”