USF Biologist Wins Prestigious National Science Grants

On the trail of a dormant virus that weakens the immune system and may help cancer spread

by Ed Carpenter, Office of Marketing Communications

Biology Professor Juliet Spencer researches HCMV and its potential role in spreading breast cancer.

Biology Professor Juliet Spencer has received two national grants to further her groundbreaking research with a herpes-related virus that infects 70–90 percent of the population and may play a role in the spread of breast cancer.

Early detection of breast cancer

On Sunday, the Avon Foundation for Women awarded Spencer $300,000 to study human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) and develop a blood test capable of identifying breast cancer patients at risk of their cancer spreading. If successful, Spencer’s work — which is being conducted with a team of USF undergraduate and graduate students — could lead to innovations in chemotherapy.

Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded separate but related work by Spencer to investigate how HCMV lives and thrives in people by tricking the immune system. The grant is worth about $425,000.

Most people are unaware they're infected

Like its better-known relative herpes simplex, HCMV can lie dormant for decades before attacking the immune system. Most people are unaware they have HCMV. Babies who contract HCMV in the womb or shortly after birth can experience hearing loss and visual impairment. Spencer hopes her team’s research might lead to a vaccine for the virus.

Spencer has received multiple grants totaling $1.26 million from the NIH over 10 years for her work related to HCMV. She’s also received research grants from the Fletcher Jones Foundation and Lily Drake Cancer Research Fund.   

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