Serologic markers of Epstein-Barr virus reactivation are associated with increased disease activity, inflammation, and interferon pathway activation in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus

J Transl Autoimmun. 2021 Aug 31;4:100117. doi: 10.1016/j.jtauto.2021.100117. eCollection 2021.


SLE is a clinically heterogeneous disease characterized by an unpredictable relapsing-remitting disease course. Although the etiology and mechanisms of SLE flares remain elusive, Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) reactivation is implicated in SLE pathogenesis. This study examined the relationships between serological measures of EBV reactivation, disease activity, and interferon (IFN)-associated immune pathways in SLE patients. Sera from adult SLE patients (n = 175) and matched unaffected controls (n = 47) were collected and tested for antibodies against EBV-viral capsid antigen (EBV-VCA; IgG and IgA), EBV-early antigen (EBV-EA; IgG), cytomegalovirus (CMV; IgG), and herpes simplex virus (HSV-1; IgG). Serological evidence of EBV reactivation was more common in SLE patients compared to controls as demonstrated by seropositivity to EBV-EA IgG (39% vs 13%; p = 0.0011) and EBV-VCA IgA (37% vs 17%; p = 0.018). EBV-VCA, CMV1, and HSV-1 IgG seropositivity rates did not differ between SLE patients and controls. Furthermore, concentrations of EBV-VCA (IgG and IgA) and EBV-EA (IgG) were higher in SLE patients. SLE patients with high disease activity had increased concentrations of EBV-VCA IgA (mean ISR 1.34 vs. 0.97; p = 0.041) and EBV-EA IgG levels (mean ISR 1.38 vs. 0.90; p = 0.007) compared with those with lower disease activity. EBV reactivation was associated with enhanced levels of the IFN-associated molecule IP-10 (p < 0.001) and the soluble mediators BLyS (p < 0.001) and IL-10 (p = 0.0011). In addition, EBV-EA IgG responses were enriched in two previously defined patient clusters with robust expression of IFN and inflammatory or lymphoid and monocyte responses. Patients in these clusters were also more likely to have major organ involvement, such as renal disease. This study supports a possible role for EBV reactivation in SLE disease activity.

Keywords: Antibodies; Disease activity; Epstein-barr virus; Interferon; Systemic lupus erythematosus.