Multiple sclerosis: the discovery of a link with a virus gives hope for progress

Treatments, which aim to block inflammation, have “advanced a lot in the last ten years”, and patient follow-up is “more individualized”, told AFP neurologist Jean Pelletier, from the French foundation Arsep (Aide à multiple sclerosis research). And, he believes, new advances could come from a particularly important discovery, made in January by American researchers: the Epstein-Barr virus is necessary for the development of multiple sclerosis, even if all people infected do not develop the disease.

This is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). It causes a disruption of the immune system, which attacks myelin, the protective sheath of nerve fibers. Most often, it causes inflammatory flare-ups interspersed with calm phases. The disease is very variable from one patient to another but can lead to sequelae, and is one of the frequent causes of disability in young adults. It is estimated that more than 2.8 million people are affected by this autoimmune disease worldwide.

Children and adolescents remain a minority of cases, but the disease may have started long before it can be diagnosed. The discovery of a link to the Epstein-Barr virus, which affects 95% of adults and is the cause of other diseases such as mononucleosis, suggests that most cases of multiple sclerosis could be prevented by stopping infection with this pathogen.

In addition to “a better understanding of what may be involved in this multifactorial disease”, the study “suggests that we could prevent multiple sclerosis from breaking out if we vaccinated children against the Epstein- Barr, knowing that we do not currently have a vaccine”, according to Professor PELLETIER. “This famous Epstein-Barr virus, once contracted, it is hidden in our body in the B lymphocytes, themselves involved in the inflammatory reaction linked to multiple sclerosis. This could explain in particular that certain treatments targeting the B lymphocytes, monoclonal antibodies, have an extremely important effectiveness against multiple sclerosis”, he advanced.

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