The relationship between Epstein-Barr virus and microRNAs and MS risk

Dr Sanjay Swaminathan

Westmead Millennium Institute, NSW

| Causes and Prevention | Epidemiology | Genetics | Incubator | 2015 | Investigator Led Research |


In recent years, there has been increasing evidence that viruses, particularly Epstein Barr virus (EBV), may also play an important role in the development of MS. Several mechanisms have been proposed to explain how EBV may be associated with MS. In recent years, microRNAs (miRNA) has emerged as an important means in which genes are regulated and controlled, but are also known to interact with viruses such as EBV that have a ‘latent’ period where the virus lies dormant in the body.  miRNA is a small fragment of encoded DNA that is important for the real-time control of gene expression – switching genes on or off.

The aim of this project is to measure the miRNA that is derived from EBV in key groups of immune cells, including B cells and T cells.  Currently we know of 44 miRNA than can be derived from EBV. Each of these will be compared to see if the amount of RNA is different between people with MS and healthy individuals. Those miRNA that do show differences between the two groups of people will then be studied in further detail using bioinformatics tools, to learn more about their function and how they might play a role in the relationship between EBV and MS. Further analysis will then aim to manipulate the levels of these miRNA and study the effects on immune cell functioning.

Dr Swaminathan’s project represents a highly novel approach to understanding the mechanism of how EBV may alter the immune response and lead to the development of MS. This project could identify new ways of targeting the EBV virus with a view to altering MS disease progression.

Progress to Date

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) has long been associated with MS and is a known risk factor for developing MS, but exactly how an EBV infection may increase MS susceptibility is unclear. Over 90% of the world adult population have been infected by EBV, the virus which causes glandular fever, although most will not show symptoms. In contrast, almost all people with MS have previously been infected with EBV. It is also known that the virus lies latently in the immune cells of infected people.

Dr Swaminathan’s project is using the latest genomic technologies to examine the impact of a latent EBV infection on the function of the immune system. To date, blood samples have been taken from 30 people with MS and compared to 30 people without MS and Dr Swaminathan has isolated specific immune cell types from the blood and looked at the gene activity profiles in each cell population. This profile allows the researchers to determine which genes are being used by the cell to respond to the EBV infection and how those cells are functioning. Dr Swaminathan and his team are currently analysing the huge of genetic datasets that they have generated. It is hoped they will be able to uncover whether the virus is causing the immune system of MS patients to malfunction and contributing to their disease.

Updated: 27 June 2016

Updated: 03 January, 2015



Grant Awarded

  • Incubator Grant

Total Funding

  • $21,000


  • 1 year over 2015

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The relationship between Epstein-Barr virus and microRNAs and MS risk