Defective EBV-specific suppressor T-cell function in rheumatoid arthritis

N Engl J Med. 1981 Nov 19;305(21):1238-43. doi: 10.1056/NEJM198111193052102.


Several lines of evidence, including high antibody titers to Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-associated antigens and rapid transformation of B cells into lymphoblastoid cells lines, suggest an association between EBV and rheumatoid arthritis. When lymphocytes from normal immune donors were infected with EBV in culture, they produced an exponentially increasing number of immunoglobulin-secreting cells for eight to 10 days. Thereafter, there was a marked late suppression of their response, mediated by immunoregulatory T cells; by 12 days in culture, this suppression averaged 90 per cent. Lymphocytes from 20 EBV-immune patients with rheumatoid arthritis also responded with increasing production of immunoglobulin-secreting cells, but the late suppression expected in immune donors was absent. Tests of several other T-cell functions in these patients gave normal results, suggesting a more restricted defect in suppressor-T cell function relating specifically to EBV. Since EBV persists in host B cells and thus represents a potential stimulus for immunoglobulin production, this persistence, along with a specific regulatory T-cell defect, may contribute to many of the immune abnormalities underlying rheumatoid arthritis.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Antibodies, Viral / analysis
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / etiology
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / immunology*
  • B-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Lymphocyte Activation
  • Middle Aged
  • T-Lymphocytes, Regulatory / immunology*


  • Antibodies, Viral