OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientists have discovered that the Epstein-Barr virus may be a possible trigger for the development of lupus in at-risk individuals.

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that leads to the development of autoantibodies and chronic inflammation that damage the body’s tissues and organs. Scientists have long known lupus has a strong genetic component, but there also must be environmental triggers to activate the disease.

A team of OMRF scientists led by Neelakshi Jog, Ph.D., and Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., is looking at the role of Epstein-Barr virus, or EBV, as a potential environmental trigger.

EBV is one of the most common human viruses and can cause mononucleosis. Most people become infected during childhood, but many don’t experience symptoms. Once a person is infected with EBV, it remains in the body for life in a dormant state. The virus can occasionally reactivate, mostly without any symptoms.

“We wanted to determine whether blood relatives of lupus patients with specific genetics and with increased reactivation of EBV were more likely to develop lupus over time,” said James, OMRF’s vice president of Clinical Affairs.

The team carried out a study where they evaluated family members of lupus patients who had not yet developed lupus themselves. They followed up with these family members about seven years later to see how many became lupus patients during that period. Nearly 13 percent went on to develop lupus.

“This follow-up gives us a great group to follow to help us understand why some at-risk people develop lupus while others do not,” Jog said. “We looked at the antibodies to EBV in people who became lupus patients, as well as those who didn’t. We saw that the people who went on to develop lupus already had high levels of these EBV antibodies at their first visit.”

Jog said this means those who go on to become lupus patients experience more reactivation of EBV before developing the disease.

“These findings will help us define those at high risk so we can monitor these people more closely to prevent damage and to identify participants for lupus prevention studies,” James said. “It will also allow us to follow up on what EBV is doing to the immune system and, hopefully, to understand what is causing lupus.”

Funding for the research was provided by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the National Institute of General Medical Science, all parts of the National Institutes of Health.

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