April 18, 2018
A new study by Lupus Research Alliance-funded researcher Dr. Matthew Weirauch of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio and colleagues might explain how a common virus that causes mononucleosis also boosts the risk for lupus. The virus may be turning on human genes that promote the illness. The scientists, including co-authors Dr. John Harley and Dr. Leah Kottyan of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, are now looking at several compounds that may block the virus’ effects.
Almost everyone on the globe has been infected by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). While EBV can trigger mononucleosis with symptoms such as a sore throat and fatigue, its effects are typically milder, and many people aren’t aware they’ve been infected. Previous studies have suggested that EBV may also make people more likely to develop lupus. However, researchers didn’t know how the virus could foster the disease.
To better understand how the virus affects cells in our bodies, Dr. Weirauch and his colleagues used two new computational techniques they developed to analyze regions of DNA that differ between patients with lupus and people who don’t have the disease. Their techniques can determine whether particular proteins from the virus interact with human DNA in regions known to contribute to lupus.
Partly funded by a Lupus Research Alliance Novel Research Grant, Dr. Weirauch and his colleagues found that a protein from the virus teamed up with normal proteins within human cells that attach to different sites in our DNA and switch genes on or off. The viral protein and the human proteins operate in certain locations that raise the risk of developing the disease. That discovery suggests that EBV may switch on genes that cause cells to malfunction, eventually leading to lupus.
The researchers, who published their findings this week in Nature Genetics, also found that the viral protein has a similar effect in six other autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBS). The scientists are now investigating several molecules, including some approved drugs, that may block the viral protein and could provide potential lupus treatments.