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Background: Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is an oncogenic virus implicated in the pathogenesis of several human malignancies. However, due to the lack of a suitable animal model, a number of fundamental questions pertaining to the biology of EBV remain poorly understood. Here, we explore the potential of rabbits as a model for EBV infection and investigate the impact of immunosuppression on viral proliferation and gene expression. Methods: Six healthy New Zealand white rabbits were inoculated intravenously with EBV and blood samples collected prior to infection and for 7 weeks post-infection. Three weeks after the last blood collection, animals were immunosuppressed with daily intramuscular injections of cyclosporin A at doses of 20 mg/kg for 15 days and blood collected twice a week from each rabbit. The animals were subsequently sacrificed and tissues from all major organs were collected for subsequent analysis. Results: Following intravenous inoculation, all 6 rabbits seroconverted with raised IgG and IgM titres to EBV, but viral DNA in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) could only be detected intermittently. Following immunosuppression however, EBV DNA could be readily detected in PBMCs from all 4 rabbits that survived the treatment. Quantitative PCR indicated an increase in EBV viral load in PBMCs as the duration of immunosuppression increased. At autopsy, splenomegaly was seen in 3/4 rabbits, but spleens from all 4 rabbit were EBV PCR positive. EBER-in situ hybridization and immunoshistochemistry revealed the presence of a large number of EBER-positive and LMP-1 positive lymphoblasts in the spleens of 3/4 rabbits. To a lesser extent, EBER-positive cells were also seen in the portal tract regions of the liver of these rabbits. Western blotting indicated that EBNA-1 and EBNA-2 were also expressed in the liver and spleen of infected animals. Conclusion: EBV can infect healthy rabbits and the infected cells proliferate when the animals are immunocompromised. The infected cells expressed several EBV-latent gene products which are probably driving the proliferation, reminiscent of what is seen in immunocompromised individuals. Further work is required to explore the potential of rabbits as an animal model for studying EBV biology and tumorigenesis.
Khan, G., Ahmed, W., Philip, P. S., Ali, M. H., & Adem, A. (2015). Healthy rabbits are susceptible to Epstein-Barr virus infection and infected cells proliferate in immunosuppressed animals. Virology Journal, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12985-015-0260-1