Getting mono is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means you have someone to kiss, or at least swap enough spit with you to pass on the Epstein-Barr virus. On the other, it means you’re going to get really sick. A new study released Monday suggests that the latter edge is the sharper one: Epstein-Barr virus, they reveal, is actually linked to an increased risk of seven other diseases in addition to mono. Yikes!
In a paper published in Nature Genetics, researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital reveal that contracting the virus increases the risk of getting seven other major diseases, which together affect 8 million people in the United States alone. You’ve definitely heard of these before: systemic lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, and type 1 diabetes. The researchers identified the increased risk caused by the Epstein-Barr virus by looking at the effects of the virus on people’s DNA, using massive genomic datasets from people who have contracted the virus. Epstein-Barr virus, while not always active, stays in the body for a lifetime.
The Epstein-Barr virus, it turns out, does much more than cause mononucleosis, aka the “kissing disease,” characterized by fatigue, sore throat, fever, and other flu-like symptoms. In the body, it produces a protein called EBNA2, which binds to regions of DNA associated with the seven diseases. When that happens, the body is unable to correctly follow the instructions encoded in its own DNA, and disease ensues. In particular, EBNA2 seems to affect many of the body’s 1,600 transcription factors — molecules that tell the cell the correct genes to “read” from — and the abnormal proteins that are produced as a result are linked to an increased risk of disease.
“This same cast of characters is a villain in multiple immune-related diseases,” study co-author and Center for Autoimmune Genomics and Etiology computational biologist Matthew Weirauch, Ph.D., said in a statement published Monday. “They’re playing that role through different ways, and doing it at different places in your genome, but it’s the same sinister characters.” The good news is that knowing how the Epstein-Barr virus wreaks havoc at the genetic level means that researchers also have a better idea of how to stop it. Future medications for these diseases will likely involve molecules that safely bind the DNA in the regions that the virus wants to bind, effectively boxing the virus out and preventing it from causing damage.
Though the major findings reported in the paper are about the virus’s involvement with the seven diseases mentioned above, the team also turned up data linking abnormalities in the body’s 1,600 transcription factors with over 200 diseases, including breast cancer. They’re hoping that other scientists will take the lead on figuring out how to develop drugs to make up for those abnormalities.
For now, the best way to keep yourself safe is to avoid getting Epstein-Barr virus. There’s no vaccine, unfortunately, so the CDC recommends avoidance: “You can help protect yourself by not kissing or sharing drinks, food, or personal items, like toothbrushes, with people who have infectious mononucleosis.” Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell who has mono or not, so if you’re out there smooching, it’s always going to be a little risky. Maybe time to reconsider the celibate life?