The University of Minnesota’s freshman class of 2016 isn’t just getting its feet wet in college, it is soaking up the viruses and germs that come with a new environment and lifestyle. And that exposure is exactly what Henry Balfour, Jr., M.D., a professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Departments of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology and Pediatrics, is looking to investigate.
Balfour has been studying mononucleosis, a common disease among young people caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), for 10 years. His goal is developing a way to prevent it.
“Understanding how the disease works and determining the factors between serious illness and not-so-serious illness could unlock the mystery of how the body should fight EBV,” said Balfour.
Balfour and his team have been working at this project for nearly a decade. Previously, they’d followed members of the classes of 2006 and 2007 for four years to determine the peak time of infection.
A paper outlining that initial focus was published in the January edition of the Journal of Infectious Diseases. In that research, Balfour outlines the rates of infection through the college career. Of the study’s participants, 90 percent of those who contracted EBV were sick. Such figures helped define the true burden of mono on college campuses because the students were closely followed for four years.
The results were lauded internationally and called “a milestone” by the co-discoverer of the Epstein-Barr virus, Sir Anthony Epstein.
Because the bulk of the students became sick during the first year, Balfour chose freshmen as the latest focus. This time around, Balfour wants to see what is leading up to the illness and hopefully get samples of the disease in its incubation period. To this end, participants are being checked every two weeks, significantly more than the 4-8 week duration in the previous study. The data provided by these samples may change the way mono is treated, as well as many other EBV-related diseases.
A bigger problem than mononucleosis
While EBV can cause mononucleosis, the problems it can create aren’t limited to such a common sickness. EBV is linked to Burkitt’s lymphoma, a common childhood cancer in central Africa, and nasopharyngeal carcinoma. It is believed that acquiring the virus at an early age impairs the ability to control it, which eventually leads to cancer.
EBV is also implicated in multiple sclerosis. Children with MS are more likely to have been infected with EBV. Patients with MS also have an elevated immune response against the virus, suggesting it may be chronically active within them.
Balfour is hopeful his research will make clear the need for an EBV vaccine, both to protect from illnesses like mono and prevent some serious chronic diseases later in life. However, more research, and funding for it, is needed if a vaccine is truly to become a reality.
“It is very hard to prevent infection. But with the right knowledge and the right timing, we may be able to change the relationship with EBV for patients worldwide.”