The Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) causes infectious mononucleosis, and has been strongly associated with certain human cancers. The virus is thought to exclusively bind to B lymphocytes and epithelial cells via receptors (CR2/CD21) that also interact with fragments of the third component of complement (C3). Recent evidence, however, has challenged this belief. We have used two-color immunofluorescence analysis using biotin-conjugated EBV and streptavidin-phycoerythrin along with fluorescein-conjugated anti-T cell antibodies and demonstrated that CD1-positive, CD3-dull (immature) human thymocytes express functional EBV receptors. In four replicate experiments, the binding of EBV to thymocytes ranged between 8 and 18%. This interaction is specific as evidenced by inhibition with nonconjugated virus, anti-CR2 antibodies, aggregated C3, and an antibody to the gp350 viral glycoprotein that the virus uses to bind to CR2. EBV can infect the thymocytes as evaluated by the presence of episomal EBV-DNA in thymocytes that had been incubated with the virus as short as 12 days or as long as 6 weeks. Episomal DNA analysis was performed by Southern blotting with a EBV-DNA probe that hybridizes to the first internal reiteration of the viral DNA. The presence of the EBV genome is also supported by the detection of EBV nuclear antigen 1 in infected thymocytes, assessed by Western blotting with EBV-immune sera. The EBV infection is specific as determined by blocking experiments using anti-CR2 and anti-gp350 antibodies. Finally, virus infection of thymocytes can act synergistically along with interleukin 2 and induce a lymphokine-dependent cellular proliferation. In view of previously reported cases of EBV-positive human T cell lymphomas, the possibility is raised that EBV may be involved in cancers of T lymphocytes that have not been previously appreciated.

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