Relationship Found Between Autoimmune Disease and Epstein-Barr Virus

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A new study suggests a protein produced by the Epstein-Barr virus can increase the risk of developing celiac disease and six other autoimmune diseases.

A group of researchers from Cincinnati, Ohio developed an algorithm to investigate possible links between DNA-binding proteins, called transcription factors, and disease loci in the human genome. A disease locus is the place in DNA where the wrong sequence is highly associated with having the disease. A transcription factor is a protein that attaches to DNA and is used by cells to turn certain genes on or off.

The RELI algorithm, which stands for Regulatory Element Locus Intersection, works by searching through large amounts of data to find statistically significant associations between DNA-binding proteins and areas in the DNA. Using this algorithm, the researchers found strong evidence of a relationship between EBNA2, a protein produced by the Epstein-Barr virus, and the disease loci for several autoimmune diseases, including celiac disease. Their work appears in the paper “Transcription factors operate across disease loci, with EBNA2 implicated in autoimmunity” in the journal Nature Genetics.

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is one of the most common human viruses in the world. The CDC estimates 90% of adults will test positive for EBV antibodies, meaning they were infected with the virus at one point. It is a very common childhood infection, typically not causing any noticeable symptoms in that age group. The virus is usually worse in teenagers and adults; it is the most common cause of infectious mononucleosis, also known as “mono.” Currently, there is no vaccine or treatment for EBV.

This study adds two important components to the current framework for human genetic diseases. The first is the RELI algorithm, an extension of previous algorithms, which shows promise in aiding the identification of patterns in the human gene environment and was made freely available by one of the primary authors, Dr. Xiaoting Chen, on github.com. The second is identifying EBNA2 and several transcription factors in cells infected with EBV as potential targets for further understanding of autoimmune diseases, and eventually, therapies to prevent or treat these conditions.

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Relationship Found Between Autoimmune Disease and Epstein-Barr Virus

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