EBV’s link to Multiple Sclerosis

Profs. Burkhard Becher, Christian Münz, & Tobias Derfuss recently obtained a Sinergia Grant of the SNSF. Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a neurodegenerative autoimmune disease that is thought to be triggered by infectious diseases. Although the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is the primary candidate, the mechanisms leading from an EBV infection to MS are still unknown. With the project “The roles of B cells and EBV infection in multiple sclerosis”, this team of basic scientists and clinicians wants to investigate these mechanisms.

Hi Burkhard, congratulations to the Sinergia Grant! The subject of your research project sounds very interesting. What are its main goals?
There are a few items here, that we think will be important. The role that B cells play in the pathogenesis of MS is tremendous. Equally, we do not know why that is and think that EBV infection (a risk factor for developing MS) may play a key role. The project involves an excellent patient cohort and preclinical work with (humanized) mice. I’d be thrilled if we uncovered the pathogenic B cell subpopulation that might be induced by EBV infection and how it might promote the disease.

How did the idea for the project emerge?
In the corridor of the institute. Christian and I figured that after 15 years at the same institute, it was about time to tackle questions that equally hit our core expertise. We then asked Tobias to join and started drafting the grant.

What is your personal motivation to get started and conduct this study?
The currently most successful therapy for MS is the depletion of B cells. I find it strange that we have absolutely no idea why B cell depletion has this tremendous effect. Equally, the role of EBV in MS is enigmatic. Because EBV infects primarily B cells, we figured there is something to uncover by putting our respective expertises together.

What are the biggest challenges you anticipate for your project?
Well, it may just not reveal what we are after. It may fail.

Are there any outside factors that could make your project fail?
That cannot be ruled out, but we think that the project plan will capture what we seek.

How do you plan to overcome these challenges?
Constant reevaluation of our approach. I think teamwork is the ticket.

What do you expect to be the most critical impact your study will have on society?
If we could uncover how B cells drive MS, that would be amazing for immunology and neuroscience, but if we can isolate the effect and treat it specifically, that would change a great deal for MS patients and their families/friends.

So, do you rather expect to find a prophylaxis, a treatment of already developed MS or both?
Both. B cell depletion therapy already works spectacularly well. If we find the right population or trigger which drives the disease, that should be a more specific therapy.

Anything else you want to say about the project, its subject or the people involved?
I think this is the dream team. Everyone on board is super motivated and driven. No big egos which could derail the project. We get on incredibly well, and the trainees on the project are keen and hard-working.

Thanks Burkhard!

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Title Image: iSTock
Image in article: Sinergia Grant