Could Prostate Cancer be caused by a VIRUS?

September 19, 2009

Researchers based at the University of Utah and Columbia University Medical schools recently published a paper in PNAS providing evidence that a virus has been found in a large number of human prostate cancer cells. Can viruses cause cancer? Yes. These viruses are known as oncoviruses. One of the most well known viruses that cause cancer is the Human Papillomavirus Virus (HPV) which has been most commonly liked to causing cervical cancer. Its highly controversial vaccine, Gardasil, is now available to all Grade 8 girls across the Province of Ontario. In the PNAS paper, researchers found the “Xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus” or XMRV for short, in 27 % of the prostate cancers they examined, and were generally associated with the more aggressive tumours. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, prostate cancer, aside from skin cancer, is the most prevalent cancer among Canadian men. Although this paper provides an interesting finding regarding the role of this particular virus and prostate cancer, it does not show causality. Future studies will need to address how the virus is transmitted, if it is in fact, causal (i.e. contracting the virus leads to cancer) or if it just an association. Regardless, this paper brings us one step closer to understanding the cause of some forms of prostate cancer, and hopefully will bring us closer to developing vaccines and treatments.

By Alisha Jamal, University of Toronto


New hope in the fight against HIV

September 7, 2009

Human Immunodeficency Virus ( HIV) infection , which is responsible for taking the lives of more than 25 million people from 1981- 2006, has long troubled scientists because of its extremely high mutation rate: approximately 3 x 10−5 per nucleotide base per cycle of replication. This has made the possibility of vaccines very unlikely, as it would be next to impossible to keep up with the viral mutation rates and new vaccines would have to be developed constantly. However, in a seminal paper published yesterday in the journal of Science has provided evidence that a vaccine may be possible in the near future.  Researchers have found a segment on the viral organism, which remains unchanged through more than 75% of the HIV mutations.  Even more promising, the researchers showed that two antibodies, which they called PG9 and PG16 were able to neutralize HIV infections in almost 80% of all cases. These antibodies were first discovered in the blood of an African AIDS patient. So what is next?  The researchers have said that they hope to to find the region on the HIV virus that the antibodies correspond to, and then recreate it in a harmless form so that it can be used as a vaccine. In an interview with the Toronto Star, Dennis Burton, a senior author on the paper said that this would be the most difficult part. Nonetheless, the finding of this paper is very exciting because for the first time ever, the possibility of a vaccine used to kill one of the most potent, and harmful viruses in our present day may be possible.

By Alisha Jamal, University of Toronto