Some 90 percent of us are exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) at some point in our lives. While the immune system’s T cells rapidly clear most EBV-infected B cells, about one in a million infected cells escapes destruction. Within these cells, the virus enters a latent phase, kept in check by the watchful eye of so-called memory T cells.
This uneasy relationship usually holds steady for the rest of our lives, unless something suppresses the immune system – such as infection with HIV or use of anti-rejection drugs after a transplant – and breaks the surveillance. The virus can then reawaken and drive the development of certain B cell cancers.