It has recently been discovered that human papillomavirus, or HPV, can be a leading factor in the development of cervical cancer. But very recent research has added a new virus to the list of viruses that cause cancer, and this one is linked to oral cancer. Cytomegalovirus, or CMV, is the newest virus on the list and is believed to cause cancer in the salivary glands.
This new virus is now one of ten oncoviruses, or cancer causing viruses. This virus was discovered to case cancer by the Laboratory for Developmental Genetics at USC. The findings were published in an online version of the journal of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. This is part of a series of studies conducted by USC researchers that are aimed at showing cytomegalovirus’ role as an oncovirus. The virus, according to the research is capable of triggering cancer in healthy cells as well as exploiting cells which are already weak or susceptible into forming tumors.
The study looked at the salivary gland tumors in humans as well as the salivary glands of postnatal mice. The lead researcher on the study, Michael Melnick a professor of developmental genetics in the Ostrow School of Dentistry at USC and Co-Director of the Laboratory for Developmental Genetics, clarified why this new study has such important implications for the future of our health. The virus is very common in humans and can cause severe illness and death in patients whose immune systems have been compromised. CMV also has been known to cause birth defects if the mother is exposed to CMV for the first time while she is pregnant. CMV may also be a factor in the cause of cancers other than salivary gland cancer.
Melnick had this to say: “CMV is incredibly common; most of us likely carry it because of our exposure to it. In healthy patients with normal immune systems, it becomes dormant and resides inactive in the salivary glands. No one knows what reactivates it.”
This research has given a plethora of data on the correlation of CMV with cancer. The mice that were tested for the study were exposed to a purified form to CMV and subsequently cancer developed. The study didn’t just reveal that the virus is a key factor in the formation of the cancer, but also that there is a positive correlation between the strength of the virus in the human body and the severity of the subsequent cancer. The study also showed how the virus acted to trigger cancer after researchers looked at the results of their attempts to slow the cancer’s progression. According to the research, CMV utilizes a molecular signaling pathway in order to exploit cells into turning cancerous.
“Typically, this pathway is only active during embryonic growth and development,” Melnick said, “but when CMV turns it back on, the resulting growth is a malignant tumor that supports production of more and more of the virus.”
Other researchers on the study include Tina Jacksoll, professor of developmental genetics and co-director of the Laboratory for Developmental Genetics at USC, and Parish Sedghizadeh, director of the USC center for Biofilms and associate professor of diagnostic sciences, as well as Carl Allen from Ohio State University.
According to Jacksoll, salivary gland cancers are especially dangerous to humns because of their difficulty to diagnose. They often are not found until they have reached a late stage. Salivary gland cancers can also be detrimental to the patient’s quality of life due to the proximity of the salivary gland to the face. But researchers hope to use the new information gathered from this study to develop prevention programs. They think that there is potential for the development of prevention methods not unlike what was done for HPV after it was found to be connected to cervical cancer.
“This could allow us to have more rational design of drugs used to treat these tumors,” Tina Jacksoll said. Researchers like Melnick are positive that new information about oncoviruses will continue to emerge. He expects that viral infections will be found to be related to a plethora of seemingly unrelated health issues.
“This should be a most fruitful area of investigation for a long time to come,” he said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg with viruses.”
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