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Mutat Res. 2000 Apr;462(2-3):395-405.

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and human disease: facts, opinions and problems.

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Viral Oncology Unit, Imperial College School of Medicine at St. Mary's, Division of Medicine, Norfolk Place, London W2 1PG, UK.


The human herpesvirus, Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), has classically been associated with two pathologies with frequencies approaching 100%. One of these, Burkitt's lymphoma (BL), is of B-cell origin and the other, nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC), is a tumour of poorly differentiated epithelial cells. More recently, EBV had been identified with frequencies from a few percent to 100% (in one case) with a variety of other malignancies. These include Hodgkin's disease (HD; where in the west, the frequency of association is about 50%), sino-nasal T-cell lymphomas, lymphoepitheliomas, some sarcomas and breast cancers, other cancers from the head and neck, and lymphomas arising in patients with immune dysfunctions. Since EBV is ubiquitous, with the vast majority of the world's population having met and seroconverted to the virus, the diversity of tumours with which it has now been associated represents a substantial health burden. In a recent IARC monograph, EBV was classified as a group 1 carcinogen. Here, the data on BL and NPC, as they relate to geographical restrictions, viral strain variation, co-factors in disease, and genetic components are reexamined. We raise the question whether in their origins, these tumours genuinely reflect distinct and independent events, as deemed at present, or may represent a response by different cell types to common extracellular factors. For example, a situation in Kenya apparently existed in the past, where both BL and NPC were observed in ethnic Africans with roughly equal frequencies; more recently, in Kenya, EBV has been identified in nearly 100% of the tumours in children with HD. We also consider tumours where the viral association is reportedly of low frequency, and offer explanations for these data, including the possibility of loss of the viral genome once malignancy has been initiated. If this phenomenon occurs as a frequent secondary event, EBV could be an even greater health risk than presently believed.

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