While I’ve written in the past about viruses that can cause cancer, today I want to introduce the concept of using viruses to selectively kill cancer cells. These types of viruses are called oncolytic viruses, meaning that they kill (-lytic) cancer cells (onco-) but not normal healthy cells.
This makes them potentially very powerful tools in treating cancers that don’t respond well to established approaches of chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. This approach is still in its infancy, but the potential of viral oncology remains promising.
In a word, yes. In fact, at this point multiple viruses have been identified as playing a role in the progression of many different cancers. The very first of these cancer-causing viruses was discovered by Peyton Rous in 1911, making the field of tumor virology over one century old. While this initial discovery was a virus that causes tumors in chickens, many important human cancers have since been discovered to have a viral component. The first human tumor virus to be discovered was Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) in association with Burkitt’s lymphoma in 1965 (see featured image). Since then many more viruses have been found to be tumorigenic (tumor-causing) in humans and more may still be awaiting to be discovered.
How is it that these many different viruses are involved in so many different types of cancers? What about these viruses makes them tumorigenic?