Epstein–Barr virus (EBV)–associated post-transplantation lymphoproliferative disease (PTLD) develops in 1 to 10 percent of transplant recipients, in whom it can be treated by a reduction in the level of immunosuppression. We postulated that the tissue expression of the small RNA transcribed by the EBER-1 gene during latent EBV infection would identify patients at risk for PTLD.
We studied EBER-1 gene expression in liver specimens obtained from 24 patients 2 days to 22 months before the development of PTLD, using in situ hybridization with an oligonucleotide probe. Control specimens were obtained from 20 recipients of allografts with signs of injury due to organ retrieval, acute graft rejection, or viral hepatitis in whom PTLD had not developed 9 to 71 months after the biopsy.
Of the 24 patients with PTLD, 17 (71 percent) had specimens in which 1 to 40 percent of mononuclear cells were positive for the EBER-1 gene. In addition, 10 of these 17 patients (59 percent) had specimens with histopathological changes suggestive of EBV hepatitis. In every case, EBER-1–positive cells were found within the lymphoproliferative lesions identified at autopsy. Only 2 of the 20 controls (10 percent) had specimens with EBER-1–positive cells (P< 0.001), and such cells were rare.
EBER-1 gene expression in liver tissue precedes the occurrence of clinical and histologic PTLD. The possibility of identifying patients at risk by the method we describe here and preventing the occurrence of PTLD by a timely reduction of immunosuppression needs to be addressed by future prospective studies.