- BBC News World
The common Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) has long been suspected of triggering multiple sclerosis.
A new study by scientists from Harvard University in the United States provides the strongest evidence to date that it does indeed play a key role in triggering this disease.
An investigation conducted with more than 10 million American military recruits showed that virtually all cases of multiple sclerosis are preceded by infection with the virus.
“Our group and others have for years investigated the hypothesis that EBV causes multiple sclerosis, but this is the first study to provide convincing evidence of causation“Italian researcher Alberto Ascherio, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health and lead author of the study, said in a statement.
“This is a big step because it suggests that most cases of multiple sclerosis could be prevented by stopping EBV infection, and that targeting EBV could lead to the discovery of a cure for multiple sclerosis.”
The study, after a two-decade investigation, was published online January 13 in the journal Science.
What are EBV and Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis, which affects 2.8 million people in the world, is a chronic inflammatory disease of the central nervous system that attacks the myelin sheaths that protect neurons in the brain and spinal cord. When this covering of nerves is damaged, nerve impulses slow down or stop.
This disease can cause a wide range of potential symptoms, including problems with vision, movement of the arms or legs, sensation, or balance.
It is a lifelong condition that can lead to serious disability, although it can be mild at times.
Its cause is unknown, but one of the main suspects is EBV, a type of herpes virus that infects approximately 95% of adults.
The Epstein-Barr virus is mainly transmitted through saliva, for example, by kissing or drinking from the same glass.
This virus is the cause of mononucleosis, also known as glandular fever or “kissing disease”, and establishes a latent infection for life in the host.
What did the study consist of
The difficulty in establishing a causal relationship between the Epstein-Barr virus and multiple sclerosis is that this virus infects approximately 95% of the population.
Multiple sclerosis, on the other hand, is relatively rare and the onset of symptoms begins about 10 years after infection with the Epstein-Barr virus, according to the TH Chan School of Public Health in a statement.
Studies of large numbers of individuals are required to establish whether people who have not been infected with the virus are less likely to develop multiple sclerosis.
To determine the connection between the virus and multiple sclerosis, the researchers analyzed serum samples taken every two years from the recruits.
In this way, they determined the Epstein-Bar virus status of the recruits at the time of the first sample and the relationship between virus infection and the appearance of multiple sclerosis during the active duty period.
Serum levels of the neurofilament light chain, a biomarker of nerve degeneration typical of multiple sclerosis, only increased after EBV infection.
These results “cannot be explained by any known risk factor for multiple sclerosis and suggest that EBV is the main cause” of that disease, according to the researchers.
The risk of multiple sclerosis increased 32-fold after EBV infection, but it did not change after infection with other viruses.
Ascherio noted that the delay between EBV infection and the onset of multiple sclerosis may be due in part to the fact that symptoms of the disease were not detected during the early stages and in part to the evolving relationship between EBV and the immune system. of the host, which is repeatedly stimulated each time the latent virus reactivates.
What does the finding mean?
“There is currently no way to effectively prevent or treat EBV infection, but an EBV vaccine or specific antiviral drugs that attack the virus could ultimately prevent or cure multiple sclerosis,” Ascherio said.
Researchers William Robinson and Lawrence Steinman of Stanford University wrote a commentary article accompanying the study.
Robinson and Steinman note that “these findings provide compelling data implicating the Epstein-Barr virus as trigger for the development of multiple sclerosis“.
There is currently no vaccine against the Epstein-Barr virus, but several laboratories, including Moderna, are working on such a vaccine.
For Clare Walton, Principal Investigator at the UK Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS Society, the study does not conclusively prove a chance relationship.
“There is now substantial evidence suggesting a link between the Epstein-Barr virus and multiple sclerosis, especially when a symptomatic infection (ie, glandular fever or infectious mononucleosis) is observed,” Walton said in a statement.
“As this new study shows, evidence is also emerging to suggest that the link may be causal. However, one or more additional factors must be required to trigger multiple sclerosis as despite the fact that 9 out of 10 people worldwide world are infected with EBV, most do not develop multiple sclerosis. “
The researcher noted that, in her opinion, “ultimately, we cannot be sure that EBV is causing MS until we can see what impact prevention of EBV infection has on the incidence of MS.”
“And while EBV vaccine research is ongoing, it is still in an early stage. It’s great to see research on this crucial topic gathering momentum.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.