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University of Minnesota researcher hopes vaccine could guard against mono, multiple sclerosis and certain cancers

University of Minnesota Health Pathologist Henry Balfour, Jr., plans to conduct a clinical study of the EBV vaccine’s ability to prevent mono in 2017.
Because contracting Epstein-Barr virus is essential to getting multiple sclerosis, mono and some types of cancer, vaccinating against the virus could well be vaccinating against those diseases, according to University of Minnesota Health Pathologist Henry Balfour Jr., MD.

University of Minnesota Health Pathologist Henry Balfour Jr. hopes a new vaccine for the Epstein-Barr virus could guard against mono, multiple sclerosis, and certain blood cancers

The power of vaccines against deadly diseases cannot be overstated. In the last decade, 17 separate diseases were successfully targeted with immunization vaccinations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now Balfour, who is also a professor at the University of Minnesota, is determined to see that number rise again as he puts his considerable expertise to work making an Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) vaccine available to the public.

Almost everyone gets infected with EBV at some point in their lives. While the vast majority of people carry EBV around with little or no ill effect, others suffer acutely from this insidious virus.

“We know that EBV causes infectious mononucleosis [mono] and certain cancers like endemic Burkitt lymphoma and a subset of Hodgkin lymphoma,” said Balfour, who founded the University of Minnesota’s clinical virology lab and is principal investigator of its International Center for Antiviral Research and Epidemiology.

“We also know now that EBV is a major threat to successful blood and marrow transplant, and that it’s the most significant environmental risk factor for multiple sclerosis (MS). So a vaccine for EBV could impact millions of people worldwide.”

A tangled tale
Back in the 1990s, scientists identified a likely candidate for use in a vaccine. But it wasn’t until 2007 that researchers in Belgium were able to complete and publish the results of the first clinical trial involving the vaccination. The trial showed that the vaccine could indeed prevent the development of mono in people who contracted EBV.

But after doing more work on the vaccine, the company that owned it was bought out by another company, which shelved the project. And there it languished until last year, when that company approached Balfour, offering to give him the rights to further develop the vaccine.

“We have a strong team here at the University of Minnesota that sees this vaccine as fulfilling a huge unmet need,” Balfour said.

The impact
Contracting EBV is essential to getting multiple sclerosis (MS), according to Balfour. Worldwide, more than 2.3 million people have MS, which is an unpredictable central nervous system disease that can lead to paralysis, blindness, and even death.

“Nearly everyone with MS has been infected with EBV, and the amount of antibodies in their systems is very high, which means the virus is continuously active.”

In other words, vaccinating against EBV could well be vaccinating against MS.

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But MS isn’t the only disease that could be prevented by the EBV vaccination. Hematologist/Oncologist Linda Burns, MD, a former University of Minnesota Health Adult Blood and Marrow Transplant program physician, has seen the damage wrought by EBV countless times.

“If a patient who undergoes a transplant has been exposed to EBV,” she explains, “it can lead to big problems because the patient’s immune system is not functioning properly and may not effectively fight the virus.”

One of those complications is an aggressive type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that can become life-threatening to the transplant patient. EBV also plays a critical role in the development of Hodgkin lymphoma; doctors have known for some time that having had mono increases your chances of developing that blood cancer.

“Reduce the number of people who contract infectious mononucleosis,” says Burns, “and we would likely reduce the number of people who get the serious lymphomas associated with EBV.”

Once a licensing agreement for the vaccine is in place, which Balfour hopes will happen early next year, his team will begin the preclinical studies necessary to gain U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for testing in humans. That phase, Balfour said, will likely take roughly two years.

In 2017, Balfour plans to oversee a clinical study of the vaccine to prevent mono involving about 300 U of M student volunteers.

“Our goal is to see this vaccine get into people to prevent mono and also some very nasty, sometimes deadly, diseases,” Balfour says.