Viral Oncology

Research related to the link between viral infections and cancer has become stronger over the last decade.  New tools in molecular biology, epidemiology and immunology have clearly shown how certain viruses are essential in causing certain tumors. LCRC investigators are collaborating to translate their basic laboratory discoveries into clinical programs, including work in the following areas:

Preventing HPV infection – Dr. Michael Hagensee, professor of medicine, and his team have made seminal contributions to understanding how to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.  This sexually transmitted virus is known to cause cervical cancer and has also been linked with very aggressive tumors of the head and neck.  He has also been part of the team of researchers testing the new HPV vaccines now approved for use in young girls and more recently in young boys.

In the U.S., African-American women have a 30% higher incidence rate of cervical cancer and a two-fold increase in the risk of mortality when compared to Caucasian women. These findings are even more striking in Louisiana, where African-American women have an almost 50% higher incidence of cervical cancer and a three-fold increase in mortality over their Caucasian counterparts.  The basis for this health disparity is becoming clearer by the day.  Dr. Hagensee’s team aims to develop culturally relevant interventions that will promote healthy behaviors and acceptance of vaccines against cancer causing viruses.

EBV infection – The Epstein Barr virus (EBV) is another virus linked to carcinoma. EBV is transmitted from host to host through salival exchange.  Currently, more than 90% of adults in the United States have become permanent carriers of the virus.  While most carriers live their lives without any significant consequences of EBV infection, certain individuals, such as transplant patients and AIDS patients, suffer from debilitating EBV-associated cancers.  Over the past year Erik Flemington, Ph.D., professor of pathology, and his team have explored the mechanism through which the virus communicates with epithelial cells in the tonsils. The findings from this work suggest a new paradigm in our knowledge of the EBV infection cycle, and this cell-cell signaling mechanism may represent a unique opportunity for therapeutic intervention.

Drs. Flemington and Hagensee continue to collaborate on a study to identify the molecular mechanisms by which these two viruses – HPV and EBV – increase the chance of developing cervical cancer, but also to understand their role in other tumors and more importantly to develop ways of preventing these co-infections through the use of vaccines.