Trigger for multiple sclerosis: Researchers show connection to Epstein-Barr virus

Washington –

According to a new study, the autoimmune disease multiple sclerosis (MS) is most likely triggered by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). The study, published in the US journal Science, provides the first “convincing evidence” for the long-suspected connection, said Harvard professor and lead author of the study, Alberto Ascherio.

Accordingly, the probability of developing MS after an EBV infection increases by a factor of 32. For the study, Ascherio’s team followed more than 10 million young members of the US Army for 20 years. 955 of them were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while on duty.

The causative agent hypothesis has been studied for years

The researchers analyzed blood samples taken every two years and determined the soldiers’ EBV status. Other viruses did not increase the likelihood of developing MS. EBV is a herpes virus that also causes glandular fever and remains in the host for life.

Around 95 percent of all adults worldwide become infected during their lifetime. The hypothesis that the pathogen is a cause of the autoimmune disease has been studied for years, but has been difficult to prove because the virus is so common and MS symptoms only appear years after infection.

EBV-specific treatment could prevent or cure MS

An EBV infection does not necessarily lead to MS, as the Harvard study shows. According to Stanford University researchers, who commented on their Harvard colleagues’ study in the journal Science, other factors, such as genetics, may play a role in whether the disease develops or not.

Ascherio sees the proof of a link between EBV and MS as an “important step” for the prevention and treatment of the disease: “An EBV vaccine or targeted treatment with EBV-specific antiviral drugs could ultimately prevent or cure MS.”

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system that often severely attacks the immune system and is the leading cause of disability in young adults. The disease progresses in phases and varies greatly from patient to patient. Around 2.8 million people are affected worldwide. The US pharmaceutical company Moderna announced last week that it would start clinical trials of a vaccine against the Epstein-Barr virus in humans.

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