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Does a Common Virus Aid the Spread of Cancer?


The University of San Francisco’s Juliet Spencer, associate professor of biology, has been awarded a $412,000 National Institute of Health grant for cancer research – one of the largest competitive federal grants garnered by an individual USF faculty member in recent years.

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 70-90 percent of humans, 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.

“Our project focuses on the connection to cancer, but in a slightly different way than other studies,” Spencer said. “We don’t think the virus needs to infect the cells to cause cancer. 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, it could lead to changes in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer to include antiviral medicines in addition to chemotherapy to the benefit of patients’ prognoses.

“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Spencer said. “But the potential for human health benefits is tremendous.”

Written by Edward Carpenter »email usfnews@usfca.edu | Twitter @usfcanews