Wilmot Cancer Center Studies Virus-Tumor Link in Area Patients, Families

May 25, 2006

Susan G. Fisher, Ph.D.

James P. Wilmot Cancer Center scientists are launching a $1.5 million community study to determine if there is a link between a virus and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and look for clues to how the virus is transmitted.

The focus of the research is simian virus 40, which causes lymphoma and other cancers in animals. It’s a source of concern because 40 years ago, scientists learned that the live virus had contaminated the polio vaccine given to 98 million people from 1955-63. 

In the past decade, many large studies have been done to determine whether there is a direct link between the virus and cancer and results have been mixed.

However, those studies have indicated that about 20 percent of all people have SV40 antibodies, which means they may have come in contact with the virus. At the same time, lymphoma incidence has risen dramatically and scientists believe additional studies are important to further test the link between this virus and lymphoma.

“There are still many questions about the virus and whether it contributes to the development of cancer,” said Susan Fisher, Ph.D., chief of epidemiology at the University of Rochester Medical Center who specializes in SV40. “Ultimately, if we are able to pinpoint the virus as a source of cancer, scientists can work to engineer therapies that will target the virus and improve the treatments for cancer.”

The five-year, National Cancer Institute-funded study focuses on analysis of tissue samples from 300 people treated at Wilmot Cancer Center and Strong Memorial Hospital. Half of the participants are being treated for lymphoma and the others are individuals who have had surgery for other non-cancer ailments.

If evidence of SV40 is found, researchers will take the next step of asking for blood samples from the individuals’ family members, to see if they also carry the viral antibodies.

“If we find family clusters with the virus, it will help us determine how the virus is transmitted,” Fisher said. “This may offer another important clue in the advancement of cancer research and care.”

Scientists have found links between viruses and other forms of cancers. The human papilloma virus is the primary cause of cervical cancer, which kills 250,000 women worldwide each year. Most people have come in contact with HPV during their lifetime and in the United States, early detection has minimized cervical cancer incidence and deaths. But HPV and disease are major problems in other parts of the world.

University of Rochester Medical Center scientists developed a way to combat HPV infection that was developed into a vaccine that is expected to be approved in the coming months. 

And earlier this year, scientists found evidence of a virus in prostate cancer cells.  Prostate cancer is very common in older men, affecting another 235,000 each year. This discovery may help treat the disease, which can be deadly if it’s not found early.

The Wilmot Cancer Center is the Finger Lakes region’s largest cancer center for state-of-the-art clinical care and cutting-edge research. It is home to one of the largest programs in lymphoma care and research in the nation.

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Leslie White
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