Regulation and dysregulation of Epstein-Barr virus latency: implications for the development of autoimmune diseases

Autoimmunity. 2008 May;41(4):298-328. doi: 10.1080/08916930802024772.


Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is a human herpesvirus hiding in a latent form in memory B cells in the majority of the world population. Although, primary EBV infection is asymptomatic or causes a self-limiting disease, infectious mononucleosis, the virus is associated with a wide variety of neoplasms developing in immunosuppressed or immunodeficient individuals, but also in patients with an apparently intact immune system. In memory B cells, tumor cells, and lymphoblastoid cell lines (LCLs, transformed by EBV in vitro) the expression of the viral genes is highly restricted. There is no virus production (lytic viral replication associated with the expression of all viral genes) in tight latency. The expression of latent viral oncogenes and RNAs is under a strict epigenetic control via DNA methylation and histone modifications that results either in a complete silencing of the EBV genome in memory B cells, or in a cell-type dependent usage of latent promoters in tumor cells, germinal center B cells, and LCLs. Both the latent and lytic EBV proteins are potent immunogens and elicit vigorous B- and T-cell responses. In immunosuppressed and immunodeficient patients, or in individuals with a functional defect of EBV-specific T cells, lytic EBV replication is regularly activated and an increased viral load can be detected in the blood. Enhanced lytic replication results in new infection events and EBV-associated transformation events, and seems to be a risk factor both for malignant transformation and the development of autoimmune diseases. One may speculate that an increased load or altered presentation of a limited set of lytic or latent EBV proteins that cross-react with cellular antigens triggers and perpetuates the pathogenic processes that result in multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, in SLE patients EBV may cause defects of B-cell tolerance checkpoints because latent membrane protein 1, an EBV-encoded viral oncoprotein can induce BAFF, a B-cell activating factor that rescues self-reactive B cells and induces a lupus-like autoimmune disease in transgenic mice.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autoimmune Diseases / genetics
  • Autoimmune Diseases / immunology
  • Autoimmune Diseases / virology*
  • B-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • B-Lymphocytes / virology
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / immunology
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections / genetics
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections / immunology
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections / virology*
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Nuclear Antigens / immunology
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Viral / genetics
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Viral / immunology
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Viral / physiology*
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human / immunology
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Immunologic Memory / immunology
  • RNA, Viral / immunology
  • Virus Latency / immunology
  • Virus Replication


  • Epstein-Barr Virus Nuclear Antigens
  • RNA, Viral