MINNEAPOLIS - A University of Minnesota professor and his team are developing a vaccine that could reduce the risk of mono, multiple sclerosis and certain cancers.

Dr. Henry H. Balfour, Jr., professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology and Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, has been working since 2007 on an Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) vaccine.

Researchers still need to do some preclinical testing, then get permission from the Food and Drug Administration to go forward with human trials. (Photo: Heidi Wigdahl, KARE)
Researchers still need to do some preclinical testing, then get permission from the Food and Drug Administration to go forward with human trials. (Photo: Heidi Wigdahl, KARE)

"Epstein-Barr virus, the cause of mono, was discovered in 1964 and yet here we are many decades later without a vaccine. And I think the reason for that is that people do not appreciate, first of all, how significant mono can be," Balfour said.

"The kissing disease"

Infectious mononucleosis is mostly spread through saliva. Some of the symptoms include a sore throat, fever and fatigue. Mono, also known as "the kissing disease," is a common illness for teenagers and young adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, EBV is the most common cause of mono.

"I just was not expecting it to be so horrible," said Caitlin Fujisawa of Minneapolis.

Russell Fujisawa and Caitlin Fujisawa of Minneapolis. (Photo: Heidi Wigdahl, KARE)
Russell Fujisawa and Caitlin Fujisawa of Minneapolis. (Photo: Heidi Wigdahl, KARE)

Fujisawa came down with mono last March at 28-years-old. It caused her face to swell and she also suffered from stomach pains and night sweats.

"I would lay out beach towels in our bed just so that when I sweat through my clothes and the beach towels, I could change out beach towels instead of sheets," Fujisawa recalled.

She was fighting mono for a month during her second year of medical school.

"I was really worried that I was going to have to drop some courses or retake the courses because I just couldn't keep up with everything," she said.

According to Balfour, there are about 280,000 cases of mono in U.S. college freshman every year. Mono lasts, on average, 17 days. Balfour's research found that based on data from the U of M's Class of 2016, the vaccine could save the university more than $400,000 in medical costs and school days lost per year.

"The impact of this could be huge because when we think about how many people have mono, probably millions because 90 percent to 95 percent of the world's population is infected with this virus," Balfour said.

EBV's link to MS and cancer

An EBV vaccine could go beyond preventing mono and have a significant impact on multiple sclerosis and certain cancers.

Dr. Henry H. Balfour, Jr. is the principal investigator and director of the "Mono Project." (Photo: Heidi Wigdahl, KARE)
Dr. Henry H. Balfour, Jr. is the principal investigator and director of the "Mono Project." (Photo: Heidi Wigdahl, KARE)

"The connection between mono and MS is that... a history of having infectious mono is significantly associated with later developing MS," Balfour said, adding that nearly everyone with MS has also been infected with EBV.

According to the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, about 2.5 million people worldwide have MS. Vaccinating against EBV could prevent people susceptible to MS from getting the disease or could result in milder cases.

When Fujisawa had mono, she was worried about giving it to her husband, Russell.

"My mother has MS so there was some concern there of her being contagious and me getting it," Russell said.

If Russell gets mono, it could increase his risk of developing MS. The couple is expecting their first child and said if there was an EBV vaccine, "It would be an obvious choice for us to vaccinate for sure."

EBV has also been linked to certain cancers, including: Hodgkin's lymphoma, Burkitt's lymphoma and nasopharyngeal carcinoma.

Devloping an EBV vaccine

Balfour is the principal investigator and director of the "Mono Project." Work in the lab is also done by two staff members and two undergraduate students at the U of M.

Graduate student Jennifer Grimm started working in the lab her freshman year, six years ago.

"There's a lot of research and new things that we've discovered over the years I have been here and I think that's kind of what makes it all worthwhile," Grimm said.

Researchers still need to do some preclinical testing, then get permission from the Food and Drug Administration to go forward with human trials. Balfour hopes that can happen by fall 2017. If successful, Balfour plans to make it a pediatric vaccine that would be given to children as they enter school.