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Blood Test Measures Immune Response to Epstein-Barr Virus in MS Patients

By LabMedica International staff writers
Posted on 24 May 2024
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Image: The novel test uses an existing diagnostic procedure as its basis to target the Epstein Barr Virus (Photo courtesy of 123RF)
Image: The novel test uses an existing diagnostic procedure as its basis to target the Epstein Barr Virus (Photo courtesy of 123RF)

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic neurological condition for which there is currently no cure. It affects around three million people globally and ranks as the second most common cause of disability among young adults. The urgent need for improved treatments has led to extensive research into various viruses associated with MS, with the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) emerging as a significant risk factor for the disease. It remains unclear why certain individuals with MS exhibit an abnormal immune response to EBV, which typically causes no symptoms in most people. Now, a novel blood test has been developed that measures the immune response to EBV, providing new avenues for basic research into EBV's role in MS and potential applications in clinical trials aimed at targeting the virus.

Researchers at Trinity College Dublin (Dublin, Ireland) conducted studies measuring the immune response of MS patients to EBNA-1, a component of EBV that resembles the myelin sheath of nerves, which is the primary target of the immune attack in MS. They discovered that this immune response is heightened in MS patients compared to individuals with epilepsy or healthy controls. The research also indicated that this response is influenced by existing MS medications that suppress the immune system but do not specifically target the virus. They noted that the immune response to EBNA-1 was reduced in MS patients who are on B-cell depleting medications, aligning with levels seen in healthy controls, compared to those not on any medication.

B-cell depleting therapies are known to decrease MS activity, though the precise mechanism is not fully understood. It is hypothesized that these medications may reduce EBV levels, which can reside dormant within B cells. The study did not confirm this hypothesis but did illustrate that immune responses to EBV in MS patients treated with these medications are comparable to those in healthy individuals. The researchers argue that this underscores the potential benefits of selectively targeting EBV rather than broadly suppressing all B cells, given B cells' crucial role in fighting infections and the risks of broader immune suppression. This research is groundbreaking as it is the first to use standard hospital laboratory equipment to assess the immune response to EBNA-1 using whole blood samples. This method contrasts with previous studies that required extensive sample preparation in specialized research labs.

The simplicity of the new test demonstrates its potential for broader application and scalability without the need for specialized equipment or additional staff. This development is significant as it enables the standard blood test, processed in a hospital lab, to provide vital insights into the immune system's response to EBNA-1, which is central to MS's pathogenesis. The scalability of this test, based on existing diagnostic techniques, opens up possibilities for further basic research into EBV's biology in relation to MS. Moreover, this test could be used in clinical trials targeting the virus, allowing for the direct measurement of the immune response to potential antiviral treatments rather than solely focusing on MS-related outcomes.

“In the short term the benefit of this research is likely to be for the research community in MS,” said Dr. Hugh Kearney, Neurologist, School of Medicine, Trinity College. “We believe the approach adopted in this test that uses whole blood samples on a robust hospital-based platform will facilitate adoption in other centers and also replication of the results with a view towards validation. In the medium term, if validated, then this would be of benefit to researchers involved in clinical trials in MS. Long term benefits will be for people with MS, who live with a chronic neurological illness as new treatments tested in clinical trials have the potential to reduce the burden of this potentially disabling disease.”

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