Morphology, immunophenotype, and distribution of latently and/or productively Epstein-Barr virus-infected cells in acute infectious mononucleosis: implications for the interindividual infection route of Epstein-Barr virus

I Anagnostopoulos, M Hummel, C Kreschel and H Stein


The present study was undertaken to unequivocally demonstrate the morphology, immunophenotype, and localization of Epstein Barr virus (EBV)-infected cells as well as the type of infection (latent versus productive) in tonsils of acute infectious mononucleosis. Paraffin sections from nine cases with clinical, serologic, and morphologic evidence of EBV infection were analyzed for the detection of small transcripts, designated EBER1 & 2, and BHLF1 by in situ hybridization (ISH) using nonisotopically labeled probes. ISH was combined with immunohistology, employing a broad panel of antibodies against B-, T-, epithelial-, macrophage-, and follicular dendritic cell (FDC)-antigens. All EBER-positive cells could be identified as lymphocytes, as they did not exhibit any morphologic or immunologic characteristics of epithelial cells, macrophages, or FDCs. A preferential accumulation of EBER-positive cells was noted around crypts, within surface squamous epithelium, and in the surroundings of necrosis. The majority of these lymphocytes could be shown to be B cells, which morphologically included Reed-Sternberg (RS)-like cells, immunoblasts, medium-sized lymphoid cells, as well as cells with plasmacytoid differentiation. In all cases, a varying number of EBER-positive T cells could be identified. ISH for BHLF1-RNA detection showed that almost all cases contained single positive small lymphoid cells, indicating a transition from latent to productive infection cycle. Such cells could also be detected within the crypt epithelium reaching up to its surface. Additional screening of 123 oropharyngeal mucosa samples from patients without evidence of acute EBV-infection, using the polymerase chain reaction for EBV-DNA detection combined with EBER- and BHLF1-ISH showed single latently infected lymphocytes in only one case. Our data imply that infected lymphocytes and not epithelial cells are, in fact, the reservoir for EBV infection, and that these are the cells that participate in the interindividual virus transfer.