Can Focusing on the Epstein-Barr Virus Help Researchers Fight MS?

Ed Tobias avatar

by Ed Tobias |

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There are continuing signals that the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is a fuel that can spark a multiple sclerosis (MS) fire.

EBV is a herpes virus that causes infectious mononucleosis, more commonly known as mono. Sometimes called the “kissing disease” because the virus that causes it is easily spread through saliva, mono causes extreme fatigue and body aches. It’s estimated that 90% of Americans are infected by EBV by the time they’re 35, but not all of them display symptoms.

A Swedish study recently reported that people who became sick with mono during childhood or adolescence increase their risk of developing multiple sclerosis as adults by two or three times. As part of the study, the researchers compared siblings who did or didn’t have mono when they were younger. The results suggested that any link between mono and MS is likely independent of family factors.

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Meanwhile, a German study published last year concluded that all 901 people with MS who were part of the study had been previously infected with the Epstein-Barr virus. The researchers called the absence of any EBV-negative subjects “remarkable,” and wrote that it “further strengthens the evidence for an association between EBV infection and MS.”

Research to reverse disability

ATA188 is an experimental medication being studied to treat MS. Researchers hope it will reverse disability in people with progressive forms of the disease and may also encourage the repair of damaged nerve coatings. Interestingly, these researchers are aiming ATA188 at B-cells that are infected with EBV, causing the cells to wrongly produce the antibodies that attack the myelin sheath on the body’s nerve fibers, which results in MS symptoms.

“ATA188 has a novel mechanism of action, and our clinical program is generating new insights into how the targeting of EBV-infected B cells and plasma cells can potentially benefit people living with progressive multiple sclerosis,” AJ Joshi, chief medical officer at Atara Biotherapeutics, the company developing ATA188, said in a press release.

The search for a vaccine

So, is there a way to inoculate someone against MS by developing an Epstein-Barr virus vaccine? Probably not, says Kassandra Munger, a neuroepidemiologist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. In an interview published on the U.K. MS Society’s website, Munger said developing an EBV vaccine has proven difficult, and even if one were to be developed, its impact on MS wouldn’t be completely clear.

“We know EBV on its own isn’t enough to cause MS,” she said.

Yet there is a large amount of evidence that some sort of infectious agent plays a role in the development of MS. Perhaps the culprit will be shown to be EBV, perhaps it will be a different virus, and perhaps it will be a virus, such as EBV, interacting with other agents in the body. 

But what about a vaccine that targets MS directly? 

Early this year, BioNTech, one of the companies that developed a COVID-19 vaccine using mRNA technology, announced it had used that technology to create a vaccine that is effective in treating or stopping MS in lab mice.

So, I’m holding out hope that just as vaccines protect us against many serious illnesses, before too much longer, a jab in the arm will be able to protect us against MS, too.

You’re invited to visit my personal blog at


Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


Ruth Hoham avatar

Ruth Hoham

Ed -
Interesting summary of EBV research! I’m still waiting for a definitive link. It seems so obviously relevant, it’s frustrating that it’s taken so long to get an answer!

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Thanks for your comment, Ruth. We'll continue to keep an eye on things with fingers crossed.


Ada Ionescu avatar

Ada Ionescu

Hello Tobias,

I have not ever had Mononucleosis, and I never tested positive for exposure or previous exposure to the Epstein Bar virus, 18 years ago when I got MS. This year, when I re-tested myself, just to see if I had somehow got exposed to the virus since then, I was still negative. So the answer is NO previous EBV exposure, but I did end up with M.S., which I have had for 18 years. Can you pls email me that German and Swedish studies you mentioned in the article above?

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hello Ada,

There are links to stories about both studies in my column. In those news stories there are links to the actual studies. Please let me know if you have trouble doing that.



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