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Epstein-Barr Virus: Helmholtz Munich and DZIF Are Working on a Vaccine

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The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) has been known for some time to play a part in a range of diseases. A current US study has now shown a close link between EBV and multiple sclerosis. Scientists at Helmholtz Munich and DZIF are already working on developing a vaccine that could move to clinical trials as early as 2023.

The Epstein-Barr virus is widespread: more than 90 percent of the global population are infected with this virus throughout their lives. In most cases, the infection remains without consequences, but the virus is also capable of causing serious illness. It has been known for some time that it is the cause of approx. 200,000 new cases of cancer each year across the globe. For immune-deficient patients, EBV constitutes a life-threatening risk, particularly after an organ transplant. Also affected are adolescents and young adults who develop glandular fever (infectious mononucleosis) as the result of an infection with EBV. As the result, they may suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis or a Hodgkin lymphoma.

Epstein-Barr virus and multiple sclerosis
The epidemiological link between the virus and multiple sclerosis has long been known. But is it also the cause, as suggested in the recent US study published in the journal Science? Wolfgang Hammerschmidt at Helmholtz Munich and the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) says: “The study makes an infection with EBV a very likely prerequisite for multiple sclerosis, but this does not mean that it is also the cause.”

However, one thing Hammerschmidt is sure of: “A vaccine against EBV would be of great significance in view of a range of diseases - multiple sclerosis as well as glandular fever.” The scientist has spent many years researching EBV, in conjunction with DZIF amongst others. The work has proven worthwhile: “We now have a vaccine candidate that is currently being optimised for a quality-assured production process.” This is the preliminary to further steps with the main purpose of testing the completely developed and safely produced vaccine in clinical trials. “We think that we might reach that point in 2023,” Hammerschmidt explains.

Virus-like particles simulate an infection
The development of the vaccine candidate began at Helmholtz Munich about 20 years ago with the construction of virus-like particles (VLPs); it was conducted in parallel both there and at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg. These VLPs consist of virus proteins and a membrane. They have the structure of perfect virus particles, but do not contain any viral genetic material. However, the authentic composition of the VLPs signals an EBV infection to the immune system. The VLPs thus trigger a defence reaction, a highly specific immune response. They are a safe and promising vaccine candidate because of their ability to trigger efficient humoral and cellular immune responses. “We are very confident that our vaccine will very efficiently prevent the development of glandular fever and the frequently associated chronic fatigue syndrome,” Hammerschmidt explains. He adds: “As glandular fever is a known risk factor for multiple sclerosis, this vaccine will also reduce the frequency of this chronic neurodegenerative autoimmune diseases. In addition, it will protect the immunosuppressed from developing a typical B-cell lymphoma.”

Background: Epstein-Barr virus
More than 90% of people are life-long carriers of this herpes virus. The infection generally remains without consequences. However, this peace is deceptive, as EBV is able to trigger a range of diseases. One of them is glandular fever as well as some forms of cancer. Glandular fever (infectious mononucleosis), with ever rising incidences especially among adolescents and young adults, can lead to complications and increase the risk of developing multiple sclerosis or a Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Generally, all it needs for transmission is a kiss with the transfer of saliva: for that reason, it is also known as the “kissing disease”.