New discovery could lead Epstein-Barr virus vaccines

New discovery could lead Epstein-Barr virus vaccines
©shutterstockTai Dundua

Researchers from MedUni Vienna have found a specific immune response to the virus Epstein-Barr virus that could help the development of new vaccines. 

The research team, led by Elisabeth Puchhammer-Stöckl, head of the Center for Virology at MedUni Vienna identified the immune response, which may be a cause of the Epstein-Barr virus. 

Epstein-Barr virus is one of the most common viral infections found in humans. The initial infection can cause IM in some children and young adults. This form of the disease is characterised by non-specific symptoms, such as fever, as well as exhaustion, which can last for several months in some extreme cases. 

The findings have been published in the American Society of Hematology’s journal Blood. 

Epstein-Barr virus can be dangerous for certain patients

Scientists have never been able to explain why the virus triggers infectious mononucleosis (IM) in some people in certain patients with initial infections and not in others.

The proliferation of the virus is usually combated by T cells as part of the patient’s antiviral immune response. Through this T cell mechanism certain Epstein-Barr virus components, known as peptides, are transferred to T cells by a specific molecule (HLA-E). HLA-E is present on the surface of cells infected with virus. 

This mechanism causes a non-classical T-cell response that causes the destruction of the infected cells. Due to a genetic variation, around one-third of the population has more HLA-E molecules in Epstein-Barr virus-infected cells. 

The MedUni Veinna study has found that the risk of developing IM after a first-time Epstein-Barr infection depends on this specific immune response 

“Our research revealed that people with the HLA-E*0103/0103 genetic variation have a lower risk of developing infectious mononucleosis than those who do not have the variation,” explained Hannes Vietzen from MedUni Vienna’s Center for Virology, and first author of the study. 

“Our experiments in the lab showed that this gene variation is associated with a highly pronounced Epstein-Barr virus-specific –non-classical – immune response,” explained Hannes Vietzen from MedUni Vienna’s Center for Virology, the first author of the study,” added Vietzen. 

Creating new treatments and diagnostics

Prior to this research, it was unclear why first-time Epstein-Barr infection only led to IM in a minority of people, while most infections do not cause any symptoms at all. The researchers have not only identified the virus-specific immune response as the cause of this phenomenon but have also realised a prospective target for research into preventive measures. 

“This immune response was still measurable years after the initial virus infection and generally provides long-lasting protection against reinfection with Epstein-Barr, so it might be worth focusing our attention on this mechanism with a view to developing new vaccines in future,” said Vietzen. 

The researchers also believe the findings from the study could also open up new diagnostic options. 

“The combination of the unfavourable HLA-E genetic variation with certain Epstein-Barr virus peptides also appears to play an important role in the development of Epstein-Barr virus-associated lymphomas in transplant recipients. Analysis of the Epstein-Barr virus strains found in these patients could be helpful in identifying high-risk patients at an early stage and treating them in good time” concluded Vietzen. 


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