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Elevated Levels of Antibodies to Epstein-Barr Virus Antigens in Sera and Synovial Fluids of Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Margaret A. Alspaugh, Gertrude Henle, Evelyne T. Lennette and Werner Henle

Department of Medicine, Louisiana State University Medical Center, New Orleans, Louisiana 70112

Division of Virology, The Joseph Stokes, Jr., Research Institute of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104

Published April 1981

The frequencies and levels of antibodies to Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-specific antigens were determined in paired sera and synovial fluids from patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and in sera from patients with other connective tissue diseases; i.e., systemic lupus erythematosus, progressive systemic sclerosis, and osteoarthritis (OA). The specimens were also tested for the presence of antibodies to RA-associated nuclear antigen. Compared to healthy controls, the patients' sera showed increased frequencies of elevated antibody titers (≥320) to Epstein-Barr viral capsid antigen, a correspondingly enhanced (twofold to threefold) geometric mean titer, and an increased frequency of antibodies at elevated titers (≥10), usually to the restricted component and rarely the diffuse component of the early antigen complex. Levels of antibody to the EBV-associated nuclear antigen were within the normal range. Enhancement of antibody titers was more pronounced in seropositive RA patients (i.e., positive for rheumatoid factor) than in those who were not. Enhancement was also found in systemic lupus erythematosus and progressive systemic sclerosis. Antibody to RA-associated nuclear antigen was detected at an increased frequency only in the group of seropositive RA patients (90%), as compared to 8-15% in the other connective tissue diseases and 6-8% in healthy controls. The antibody titers in the synovial fluids equaled or were at most twofold higher or lower than those in the sera. In addition, levels of EBV-specific antibodies were studied serially over a period of 6-10 mo in patients with RA and OA. Parameters of disease activity were determined and compared to antibody levels. EBV-specific antibodies in sera of OA patients remained constant and within normal limits throughout the study. Although EBV-specific antibodies were often elevated in RA patients, they also remained constant, with the exception of three patients, who showed gradual increases in one of the four antibodies, which did not correlate with disease activity.

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