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The EBV-encoded EBNA1 was first discovered 40 years ago, approximately 10 years after the presence of EBV had been demonstrated in Burkitt's lymphoma cells. It took another 10 years before the functions of EBNA1 in maintaining the viral genome were revealed, and it has since been shown to be an essential viral factor expressed in all EBV-carrying cells. Apart from serving to maintain the viral episome and to control viral replication and gene expression, EBNA1 also harbours acis-acting mechanism that allows virus-carrying host cells to evade the immune system. This relates to a particular glycine–alanine repeat (GAr) within EBNA1 that has the capacity to suppress antigen presentation to the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I pathway. We discuss the role of the GAr sequence at the level of mRNA translation initiation, rather than at the protein level, as at least part of the mechanism to avoid MHC presentation. Interfering with this mechanism has become the focus of the development of immune-based therapies against EBV-carrying cancers, and some lead compounds that affect translation of GAr-carrying mRNAs have been identified. In addition, we describe the EBV-encoded ZEBRA factor and the switch from the latent to the lytic cycle as an alternative virus-specific target for treating EBV-carrying cancers. Understanding the molecular mechanisms of how EBNA1 and ZEBRA interfere with cellular pathways not only opens new therapeutic approaches but continues to reveal new cell-biological insights on the interplay between host and virus. This review is a tale of discoveries relating to how EBNA1 and ZEBRA have emerged as targets for specific cancer therapies against EBV-carrying diseases, and serves as an illustration of how mRNA translation can play roles in future immune-based strategies to target viral disease.Copyright © 2014 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.