Juliet Spencer, associate professor of biology, has been awarded a $412,000 National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant for cancer research.
Spencer’s latest research expands on earlier work that examined a variant of the herpes virus (HCMV), determining how it is able to lay dormant and go undetected in humans, sometimes for decades, before attacking the immune system.
Using the three-year NIH grant, Spencer will study the effect of the HCMV virus, which infects up to 80 percent of Americans, on cancer cells. Specifically, she’ll examine whether a substance that HCMV cells secrete weakens healthy cells’ defenses—thereby opening the door for pre-cancerous cells to grow.
“We don’t think the virus needs to infect the cells to cause cancer,” Spencer explained. “We think that infected cells may produce a substance that causes healthy cells to be more likely to become cancerous.”
If Spencer is able to demonstrate the connection between HCMV and breast cancer tumors, the discovery could lead to changes in the treatment of cancer to include antiviral medicines in addition to chemotherapy.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Spencer said. “But the potential for human health benefits is tremendous.”