Epstein-Barr virus infection in ex vivo tonsil epithelial cell cultures of asymptomatic carriers.
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Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is found frequently in certain epithelial pathologies, such as nasopharyngeal carcinoma and oral hairy leukoplakia, indicating that the virus can infect epithelial cells in vivo. Recent studies of cell lines imply that epithelial cells may also play a role in persistent EBV infection in vivo. In this report, we show the establishment and characterization of an ex vivo culture model of tonsil epithelial cells, a likely site for EBV infection in vivo. Primary epithelial-cell cultures, generated from tonsil explants, contained a heterogeneous mixture of cells with an ongoing process of differentiation. Keratin expression profiles were consistent with the presence of cells from both surface and crypt epithelia. A small subset of cells could be latently infected by coculture with EBV-releasing cell lines, but not with cell-free virus. We also detected viral-DNA, -mRNA, and -protein expression in cultures from EBV-positive tonsil donors prior to in vitro infection. We conclude that these cells were either already infected at the time of explantation or soon after through cell-to-cell contact with B cells replicating EBV in the explant. Taken together, these findings suggest that the tonsil epithelium of asymptomatic virus carriers is able to sustain EBV infection in vivo. This provides an explanation for the presence of EBV in naso- and oropharyngeal pathologies and is consistent with epithelial cells playing a role in the egress of EBV during persistent infection.