A group of scientists from the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF) today announced that Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (lupus) may be caused by a common virus. Their results will be published today in the The Journal of Clinical Investigation.
The work being reported raises suspicion that a common virus, known as Epstein-Barr virus, may be the culprit in lupus disease. This virus is already known to cause “mono” or mononucleosis, as well as some cancers.
“Our work shows a powerful association of Epstein-Barr virus infection with lupus in children and teenagers, yet we do not know whether this association will be found in older adults,” said John Harley, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Member of the OMRF, Professor of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and with the Veterans Medical Center. “While we have different kinds of evidence, all of which point toward an important role of Epstein-Barr virus in lupus, we do not have proof that this virus causes lupus. Our work is consistent with this possibility, however.”
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, a serious autoimmune disorder, is life threatening in some cases, while in others, the disease seldom interferes with daily activities. Symptoms range from skin rashes and sensitivity to the sun to internal organ involvement, sometimes including nervous system problems.
Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., is the lead author on the lupus study. Drs. James and Harley began working together 10 years ago when she won a Sir Alexander Fleming Scholarship as an Oklahoma Baptist University undergraduate and was assigned to Dr. Harley’s lab at OMRF.
“If a cause of lupus can be established, then our thinking and approach to the disease will also be fundamentally changed,” said Dr. James. “If it is Epstein-Barr virus, then the continued infection by this virus may be needed to initiate or sustain the disease process.”
If it is eventually shown that Epstein-Barr virus does not cause lupus, then lupus patients must be extraordinarily susceptible to the virus, which is also an important discovery.
“Dr. James and Harley’s paper is a major step in our understanding of the etiology of one of the most common autoimmune diseases in the world and presents powerful evidence for an association between infection with E-B virus at an early age and Systemic Lupus Erythematosus,” said Dr. J. Donald Capra, President and Scientific Director of the OMRF. “The most important practical implication of Drs. James and Harley’s finding is that in the long term, one could imagine immunizing children against this virus to hopefully protect them from ever getting lupus.”
Before the scientific community will accept an association between lupus and Epstein-Barr virus, the findings must be confirmed by other scientists. It may be a year or more before such work could be completed.
“Now that our results are published, many scientists will try to test predictions of the idea that this virus is important and others will do many different kinds of experiments in an attempt to prove that our interpretation is wrong,” said Dr. Harley. “We will be watching for the outcome of their experiments with great interest, as will the hundreds of thousands of lupus patients, their families, friends and doctors.”
Would an effective vaccine against the virus prevent this disease in future generations? Would drugs designed to treat the virus be useful in treating lupus? Would treatments designed to change the immune response against the virus help in lupus? These and many more questions have arisen from the OMRF work and will keep lupus researchers very busy for years to come.
“Before these kinds of possibilities can be explored seriously, it is required that other scientists discover what we have found and that additional evidence be collected which also shows that this virus is probably the agent responsible for the disease,” said Dr. James.
Dr. Harley is a Professor of Medicine and holds the McEldowney Chair at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. He is also on the Staff of the Oklahoma City Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Dr. James is a Senior Research Scientist at OMRF and is also Assistant Professor of Research in the Department of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
Others contributing to the study included; Dr. Tom Lehman of the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and Drs. Ken Kaufman, Darise Farris and Elizabeth Taylor-Albert, who were working at the University of Oklahoma or the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City when the study was done.
The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research foundation dedicated to the search for better treatments and cures for human disease. Chartered in 1946, OMRF has earned international recognition for its research into lupus, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease and others. Through basic biomedical research, the foundation continues to pursue its mission“…that more live longer, healthier lives.”