GW Researchers to Study Ancient Viruses in Cancer Patients with HIV

The $2.2 million award allows scientists to focus on fossil viruses implicated in certain types of cancer for patients with the HIV infection.

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November 28, 2016

George Washington University researchers were awarded $2.2 million from the National Cancer Institute to study the impact of ancient Human Endogenous Retroviruses in certain cancers for patients with HIV.

Researchers will look at why certain types of cancers are more prevalent in HIV patients, while others have unchanged or even decreased rates.

Douglas Nixon, chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Tropical Medicine at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences, is the principal investigator on the grant. He will work alongside GW Cancer Center Director Eduardo M. Sotomayor. The cancer center provided seed funding for the research.

Dr. Nixon said while he is not primarily a cancer researcher, HIV and AIDS research can provide insights into cancer mechanisms and biology.

“I believe this project shows the importance of seed funding, but also of cross-disciplinary work – something GW has made a priority, allowing people from different fields to come together and talk to each other in ways many large institutions do not,” Dr. Nixon said. “I am delighted to be joining the cancer research community and to work with the GW Cancer Center.”

Human Endogenous Retroviruses (HERVs) are described as fossil viruses that, over millions of years, have become a fraction of the human genome. Research shows HERVs play a role in the development of germ cell tumors, prostate and breast cancers, melanoma and renal cell carcinoma.

Dr. Nixon’s research team has published extensively on the effect of HIV on the expression of HERVs over the last decade. His team has focused on the youngest of these retroviruses, the HERV-K (HML-2) family.

Dr. Nixon’s team has developed a computational pathway program, “Telescope,” to pinpoint where HERVs are transcribed in HIV infected patients. Dr. Nixon’s team will use “Telescope” to determine which HERVs are expressed in prostate, breast and colon cancers in patients with and without HIV. From there researchers will follow the anti-HERV immune responses.

Dr. Nixon and his team hypothesize that the HIV infection reactivates HERVs in the genome and stimulates anti-HERV immunity, which specifically recognizes HERVs and is also expressed in certain cancers. They also believe these HIV-induced HERV specific immune responses target HERVs that are expressed in breast, colon or prostate cancer.

Dr. Nixon has collaborated with Brad Jones, assistant professor of microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine; Keith Crandall, director of the GW Computational Biology Institute at the Milken Institute School of Public Health; student researcher Matthew Bendall and Gustavo Reyes-Terán, adjunct professor of microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine at SMHS and head of the Department of Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Respiratory Infections in Mexico City.

Dr. Sotomayor said the GW Cancer Center is thrilled to be working with Dr. Nixon on this research.

“We believe this research will have major implications for cancer research, and in the future, cancer patients,” Dr. Sotomayor said.

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