The University of San
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
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
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.”