Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infects >90% of population world wide and, in healthy virus carriers, establishes life long persistence in the immunoglobulin (Ig)Dneg, CD27+ (“class-switched”) memory B cell compartment normally produced by antigen stimulation and transit through germinal centres. Patients with the X-linked lymphoproliferative disease (XLP) cannot make such class-switched memory B cells due to an inherited mutation in the slam-associated protein (SAP) gene involved in the maturation of antibody responses. Interestingly, XLP patients are highly susceptible to severe primary EBV infection and develop a fulminant infectious mononucleosis (IM) which is often fatal and where the symptoms progress to resemble those of a different (non-familial) disease, EBV-associated haemophagocytosis syndrome (EBV-AHS), caused by virus entry into the NK or T cell system. Some XLP patients survive their primary infection, but the nature of EBV carriage in these individuals (lacking conventional memory B cells) remains unresolved. To investigate this further we obtained blood samples from 8 such XLP patients. EBV load in total peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC), determined by quantitative PCR, occupied a broad range but on average was 2 to 3-fold fold higher than that of healthy controls. The virus was concentrated within the B cell (CD19+) compartment, as in healthy carriers, and not within T or NK cells, as typically seen in EBV-AHS. We then confirmed that these XLP patients indeed lacked conventional class-switched memory B cells but did carry a small population of IgM+, IgD+, CD27+ (“non-switched”) memory cells; however their circulating B cell pool was dominated by naïve (IgM+, IgD+, CD27neg) cells and by expanded numbers of immature “transitional” (CD10+ CD27neg) cells. In each of 4 cases studied by cell sorting, EBV was concentrated in this small subset of “non-switched” memory B cells. To see if the high virus load detected in these patients indicated true virus persistence as opposed to recent or recurrent infection, serial samples obtained over a 3 year period from two XLP patients were assayed. Virus load was stable and, in one case with the highest load, screening with markers of virus polymorphism detected the same resident strain over time. Our results in XLP patients make it clear that EBV can persist in the absence of a conventional class-switched memory B cell compartment. Instead, the virus is sequestered in a small population of “non-class-switched memory” cells with Ig gene mutations. The origin of such cells, which are also detectable in the blood of normal donors, is uncertain; however their existence in XLP patients suggests that such cells arise independently of germinal centre activity and hence that EBV may be able to colonise its host without exploiting germinal centre transit.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.