Most humans carry Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) in circulating memory B cells as a latent infection that is controlled by an immune response. When infected by EBV, B lymphocytes in fetal cord blood are readily transformed to lymphoblastoid cell lines (LCL). It is frequently assumed that this high efficiency of transformation is due to the absence of a primary immune response. However, cord blood lymphocytes stimulated with autologous LCL yield CD4+ T cells that can completely inhibit the growth of LCL by a major histocompatibility complex-restricted cytotoxic mechanism mediated by granulysin and granzyme B. Because EBV-transformed B cells maintain the phenotype of antigen-activated B-cell blasts, they can potentially receive inhibitory or helper functions from CD4+ T cells. To assess these functions, the effect of EBV-specific CD4+ T cells on the efficiency of virus transformation of autologous B cells was assayed. Paradoxically, although the cytotoxic CD4+ T-cell lines reduced EBV B-cell transformation at a high effector/target ratio of 10:1, they caused a twofold increase in B-cell transformation at the lower effector/target ratio of 1:1. Th1-polarized CD4+ T cells were more effective at inhibiting B-cell transformation, but Th2-polarized cell lines had reduced cytotoxic activity, were unable to inhibit LCL growth, and caused a 10-fold increase in transformation efficiency. Tonsil lymphoid follicles lacked NK cells and CD8+ T cells but contained CD4+ T cells. We propose that CD4+ T cells provide helper or cytotoxic functions to EBV-transformed B cells and that the balance of these functions within tonsil compartments is critical in establishing asymptomatic primary EBV infection and maintaining a stable lifelong latent infection.
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