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A recent study shows a new vaccine targeting the Epstein-Barr virus could reduce the risk of health conditions like multiple sclerosis and cancer. Rudi Suardi/Getty Images
  • Researchers announced a new study looking at a potential vaccine for the Epstein-Barr virus.
  • The virus is one of the most common viruses around the world and is linked to certain cancers and an increased risk of multiple sclerosis.
  • The latest study looked at how a potential vaccine worked to boost the immune system of mice.

We are one step closer to having a vaccine against the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), one of the most common human viruses that causes mononucleosis and long-term complications, including some cancers and multiple sclerosis (MS).

Approximately 95% of the world population has contracted EBV, and while most people are asymptomatic or recover without any issues, the infection is thought to be a major risk factor for the development of MS, lymphoma, and nasopharyngeal cancer.

Nearly 200,000 new EBV-associated cancers are diagnosed around the world every year.

Because EBV may be disabling for millions of people, scientists have been eager to develop a vaccine that could provide protection against infection and prevent the virus from damaging the body.

In a report published August 8, 2023, in Nature Communications, researchers from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Australia demonstrated that they designed a vaccine that successfully targets multiple arms of the immune system in mice to block EBV activity and prevent EBV-associated diseases.

The shot, which will need to be tested in human clinical trials, would be the first EBV vaccine licensed for human use.

“The value of a vaccine against Epstein-Barr virus would be primarily against the serious complications that can occur such as lymphoproliferative disease or possibly multiple sclerosis,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, FIDSA, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security and an infectious disease expert, told Healthline.

A 2022 study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health looked at 801 military personnel who developed MS. They found a higher rate of EBV infection in people with MS compared to the control group who did not develop MS.

Those researchers suspect that the virus could lead to issues like MS and cancer by triggering an autoimmune response in the body or triggering immune dysregulation following an acute infection.

This type of vaccine could prevent Epstein-Barr viruses from latently infecting cells and causing EBV-associated malignancies and autoimmune diseases.

“The EBV vaccine is important and promising to prevent serious disease. It’s worth it to vaccinate and prevent potential health complications,” says Hopfer.

With EBV, it’s necessary for a vaccine to provide protection against not only acute infections, like mono, but long-term health complications, too.

After an infection, EBV stays in the body, latently for years.

“EBV is a serious disease caused by the EB virus, and while they can be overcome, the virus stays latent in the body and can become active again when an individual’s immune system is weakened,” says Suellen Hopfer, PhD, an associate professor of health, society, and behavior with the program in public health at the University of California Irvine.

“The fact that a person never clears Epstein-Barr virus is what makes it challenging,” Adalja said.

According to the new report, the vaccine in development was designed to stimulate two different parts of the immune system that attack invading viruses in different ways via long lasting antibodies and killer T cells, which destroy virus-infected cells.

By stimulating antibodies and T cells, the vaccine is able to teach our body to wipe out primary infections and continue monitoring and clearing infected cells over time.

The vaccine was injected into the lymph nodes of mice, the center of the body’s immune system.

The team found that it produced strong immune responses against primary and latency infections.

In laboratory experiments, the vaccine also prevented and significantly reduced the development of EBV-associated tumor cells.

The vaccine’s effects remained robust for over seven months.

The researchers hope to launch human clinical trials in 2024 or 2025.

“It will be important to replicate these findings in human studies and get clinical data regarding prevention of complications and suppression of latent virus,” Adalja said.

Scientists have developed a vaccine that may successfully prevent infections and later complications, like cancer and multiple sclerosis, caused by Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).

The researchers hope to launch human clinical trials in 2024 or 2025. The shot would be the first EBV vaccine licensed for use in humans.