It has long been known that multiple sclerosis (MS) is associated with an increased Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) seroprevalence and high immune reactivity to EBV and that infectious mononucleosis increases MS risk. This evidence led to postulate that EBV infection plays a role in MS etiopathogenesis, although the mechanisms are debated. This study was designed to assess the prevalence and magnitude of CD8+ T-cell responses to EBV latent (EBNA-3A, LMP-2A) and lytic (BZLF-1, BMLF-1) antigens in relapsing-remitting MS patients (n = 113) and healthy donors (HD) (n = 43) and to investigate whether the EBV-specific CD8+ T cell response correlates with disease activity, as defined by clinical evaluation and gadolinium-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging. Using HLA class I pentamers, lytic antigen-specific CD8+ T cell responses were detected in fewer untreated inactive MS patients than in active MS patients and HD while the frequency of CD8+ T cells specific for EBV lytic and latent antigens was higher in active and inactive MS patients, respectively. In contrast, the CD8+ T cell response to cytomegalovirus did not differ between HD and MS patients, irrespective of the disease phase. Marked differences in the prevalence of EBV-specific CD8+ T cell responses were observed in patients treated with interferon-β and natalizumab, two licensed drugs for relapsing-remitting MS. Longitudinal studies revealed expansion of CD8+ T cells specific for EBV lytic antigens during active disease in untreated MS patients but not in relapse-free, natalizumab-treated patients. Analysis of post-mortem MS brain samples showed expression of the EBV lytic protein BZLF-1 and interactions between cytotoxic CD8+ T cells and EBV lytically infected plasma cells in inflammatory white matter lesions and meninges. We therefore propose that inability to control EBV infection during inactive MS could set the stage for intracerebral viral reactivation and disease relapse.
There is general consensus that multiple sclerosis (MS) is associated with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection but the mechanistic links are still debated. EBV is a B-lymphotropic herpesvirus widespread in the human population and normally contained as a persistent, asymptomatic infection by immune surveillance. However, EBV can cause infectious mononucleosis, is associated with numerous human malignancies, and is implicated in some common autoimmune diseases. While EBV infection alone cannot explain MS development, it has been postulated that in susceptible individuals alterations in the mechanisms regulating the immune response to the virus may contribute to MS pathogenesis. Here, we show that MS patients with inactive disease exhibit a lower CD8+ T-cell response to EBV when compared to healthy donors and active MS patients while the latter have a higher frequency of CD8+ T cells specific for EBV lytic antigens. Therapy with interferon-β and natalizumab, two treatments for relapsing-remitting MS, was associated with marked changes in the EBV specific CD8+ T cell response. We also demonstrate that one of the EBV lytic antigens recognized by CD8+ T cells expanding in the blood during active MS is expressed in the inflamed MS brain. Our results support a model of MS pathogenesis in which EBV infection and reactivation in the CNS stimulates an immunopathological response and suggest that antiviral or immunomodulatory therapies aimed at restoring the host-EBV balance could be beneficial to MS patients.