If you’ve ever had “mono”, or infectious mononucleosis caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), you already know that it’s a pretty miserable thing — extreme, lingering fatigue, body aches, fever, and a sore throat are just a few of the crappy symptoms associated with “the kissing disease” that can leave you miserable, laid up, and marathoning Netflix with your dog for weeks. As it turns out, we're only just learning about the extent of the Epstein-Barr virus' damage: a new study published in the Nature Genetics journal on Monday reports that EBV is positively linked to seven other major diseases — those who test positive for Epstein-Barr may be at increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and type 1 diabetes. “Combined, these diseases affect nearly 8 million people in the U.S.”, the press release further reports.
According to another press release, the study shows that a protein produced by the Epstein-Barr virus, called EBNA2, attaches to various locations along the human genome that are associated with the seven diseases. The new paper reports that EBV seems to hijack the immune system, and that by invading and reprogramming immunity boosting B cells, EBV derails the body’s immune response — taking over control of B cell functions. The study also emphasizes “how environmental factors, such as viral or bacterial infections, poor diet, pollution, or other hazardous exposures, can interact with the human genetic blueprint and have disease-influencing consequences.”
The far-reaching study was led by three scientists at the Center for Autoimmune Genomics and Etiology (CAGE) at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital: immunobiology expert Leah Kottyan, computational biologist Matthew Weirauch, and CAGE director John Harley. “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 of disease is increased,” Harley said in the press release, “And not just for lupus, but all these other diseases, too.”
Mono was nicknamed the “kissing disease” years ago because it spreads primarily through contact with saliva. And while EBV has some potentially scary far-reaching effects, it’s also super common: up to 90 percent of the U.S. population will become infected with the virus by age 20, U.S. News reports, and “in less-developed nations, 90 percent of people become infected by age 2.” The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) state that mono occurs mostly in teens and young adults, and that one in four people infected with EBV will develop it.
As common as exposure to EBV is, the findings “should not be a cause for alarm,” Dr. David Pisetsky, a professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine, told WebMD. He noted that, “In modern life, everyone has been exposed and infected with Epstein-Barr [...] 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,” Pisetsky further explained.
That said, Harley further notes in a press release that, “This discovery is probably fundamental enough that it will spur many other scientists around the world to reconsider this virus in these disorders [...] 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.” Kottyan adds that the findings are significant enough that there is now “A really strong rationale for encouraging people to come up with more of an effort” in coming up with new EBV vaccines, some of which are currently “under development,” according to U.S. News.
So if you had mono back in high school, don’t panic; lots of people get infected with EBV, and don’t go on to develop more serious disorders. If the current findings encourage you to shore up your self-care efforts, eat your fruits and veggies, and get a little more sleep to boost your immunity as much as you can, that’s great. Otherwise, more research is needed to further understand how EBV interacts with the human genome, how it may up the risk for certain diseases; and how new treatments and preventative care measures could make a big difference in mitigating the fallout from EBV — all good things for sure.