Epstein-Barr virus and molecular mimicry in systemic lupus erythematosus

Autoimmunity. 2006 Feb;39(1):63-70. doi: 10.1080/08916930500484849.


Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE or lupus) is a complex disease with a multifactoral etiology, with genetic, hormonal, and environmental influences. Molecular mimicry as a result of viral infection may contribute to the development of lupus. The pattern of autoantibody development in lupus is consistent with initiation through molecular mimicry, as the initial autoantigenic epitopes that have been observed are limited and cross-reactive with viral proteins. Autoantibody specificity may then later diversify to other autoantigens through B-cell epitope spreading. Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is an excellent candidate to be involved in molecular mimicry in lupus. EBV infection has been associated with lupus through serological and DNA studies. Infection with EBV results in the production of the viral protein Epstein-Barr virus nuclear antigen-1 (EBNA-1), antibodies against which cross-react with lupus-associated autoantigens, including Ro, Sm B/B', and Sm D1, in lupus patients. The immune response against EBV, and EBNA-1 in particular, differs among lupus patients and healthy controls, with controls maintaining a limited humoral response and failing to produce long-standing cross-reactive antibodies. We hypothesize that the humoral immune response to EBNA-1 in susceptible individuals leads to the generation of cross-reactive antibodies. Through the process of epitope spreading, these cross-reactive antibodies target additional, non-cross reactive autoepitopes, spread to additional autoantigens, and become pathogenic, leading eventually to clinical lupus. This paper reviews some of the current literature supporting roles for EBV exposure and epitope spreading in SLE.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic / immunology*
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic / virology
  • Molecular Mimicry / immunology*