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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Study: More evidence links a virus to multiple sclerosis

There is further evidence that one of the most common viruses in the world can set some people on the path of developing multiple sclerosis.

Multiple sclerosis is a potentially disabling disease that occurs when cells of the immune system mistakenly attack the protective coating on nerve fibers, gradually destroying them.

The Epstein-Barr virus has long been suspected of playing a role in the development of MS. It’s a connection that’s difficult to prove because nearly everyone becomes infected with Epstein-Barr, usually as children or young adults—but only a small fraction develop MS.

On Thursday, Harvard researchers reported one of the largest studies yet to support the Epstein-Barr theory.

They tracked archived blood samples from more than 10 million people in the US military and found that the risk of MS increased 32 times following an Epstein-Barr infection.

The military routinely conducts blood tests to its members and researchers examined samples stored from 1993 to 2013, hunting for antibodies indicating viral infection.

Only 5.3% of recruits showed no signs of Epstein-Barr when they joined the military. Researchers later compared 801 MS cases diagnosed over a 20-year period with 1,566 service members who never got MS.

Only one of the MS patients had no evidence of Epstein-Barr virus prior to diagnosis. And despite a thorough search, researchers found no evidence that other viral infections played a role.

The findings “strongly suggest” that Epstein-Barr infection is “a cause and not a consequence of MS,” study author Dr. Alberto Escherio from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and colleagues report in the journal Science.

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That’s clearly not the only factor, given that about 90% of adults have antibodies that show they have Epstein-Barr — while there are about 1 million people in the U.S. living with MS, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. according.

The virus appears to be the “early trigger,” Dr. Stanford University’s William H. Robinson and Lawrence Steinman wrote in an editorial accompanying Thursday’s study. But he cautioned, “additional fuses must be ignited,” such as genes that can make people more vulnerable.

Epstein-Barr is best known for causing “mono” or infectious mononucleosis in adolescents and young adults, but often causing no symptoms. A virus that remains dormant in the body after initial infection, it has also been later linked to the development of certain autoimmune diseases and rare cancers.

It is not clear why. One of the possibilities is what’s called a “molecular mimic,” meaning that the viral protein may look so similar to certain nervous system proteins that it induces a false immune attack.

Regardless, the new study is “the strongest evidence to date that Epstein-Barr contributes to causing MS,” said Mark Allegretta, vice president of research at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

And, he added, “opens the door to potentially preventing MS by preventing Epstein-Barr infection.”

Efforts are underway to develop Epstein-Barr vaccines, including a small study initiated by Moderna Inc., which is known for its COVID-19 vaccine.


The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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