The Essential Role of Viruses in Our Understanding of Human Cancers
Chris Sullivan, University of Texas at Austin
Despite being studied for centuries, cancer continues to mystify the researcher and clinician alike. Essentially a disease that starts as inappropriate cell proliferation, cancer is fundamentally a problem of aberrant gene expression. Teasing out which of the tens of thousands of protein-coding genes and thousands of non-protein-coding genes contribute to the numerous diseases collectively known as “cancer” is a daunting task. This is where the study of viruses plays a pivotal role. Tumor viruses, whose genome sizes are ~1 million times smaller than the human genome, contain all the tools necessary to initiate the process of cancer. As such, these viruses have played an invaluable role in our current understanding of cancer by serving as “molecular divining rods” capable of identifying key nodes of host biology involved in tumorigenesis. Most notably, the study of viruses has identified two all-important gene classes involved in essentially all cancers– (1) Tumor suppressor genes that prevent cancer and are consequently frequently defective in cancer, and (2) Oncogenes that promote aberrant cell proliferation and are hyperactive in cancer.
More than just guideposts for researchers, tumor viruses are associated with 12-25% of all human cancers. Thus, the study of tumor viruses directly benefits human health. Notable accomplishments from the field include anti-viral vaccines that have already prevented millions of cancers and anti-viral drugs and immunotherapies that will prevent and treat various cancers. On the flip side, viruses show promise as cancer therapeutic agents, having been engineered to preferentially replicate in, kill, and recruit a robust immune response to tumor cells.
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