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Scientists find an ancient virus might be the key to treating lung cancer

Immune cells (in green) gather at the margins of lung tumours.Immune cells (in green) gather at the margins of lung tumours.

The Francis Crick Institute

  • The remnants of ancient viruses that remain in human DNA can help people fight lung cancer.
  • Scientists have found endogenous retroviruses can be awoken in cancer tissue and evoke an immune response. 
  • This could be the key to developing a cancer treatment vaccine and aiding survival rates. 

The remnants of ancient viruses that remain in human DNA can help people fight lung cancer, a new study has found. 

Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute, partly funded by Cancer Research UK, have found that these viruses, called endogenous retroviruses, are dormant in most people but can be awoken in cancer tissue. 

But when studying lung cancer tissue in both mice and human tissue, scientists discovered that when these cells are activated, they can elicit an immune response from B cells, which are white blood cells that create illness-busting antibodies. 

So, when the ancient endogenous ‘retroviruses wake up’ in cancerous areas, our body creates a biological response to fight cancer. 

“The immune system is tricked into believing that the tumor cells are infected, and it tries to eliminate the virus, so it’s sort of an alarm system,” Professor George Kassiotis, head of the Retroviral Immunology Laboratory at the Crick, told the BBC.

This discovery puts scientists closer to creating more effective treatments for lung cancer, he said.

“With more research, we could look to develop a cancer treatment vaccine made up of activated ERV genes to boost antibody production at the site of patient’s cancer and hopefully improve the outcome of immunotherapy treatment,” said Prof. Kassiotis in a statement from The Francis Crick Institute

He added, “ERVs have been hiding as viral footprints in the human genome for thousands or millions of years, so it’s fascinating to think that the diseases of our ancestors might be key to treating diseases today.”

Julian Downward, Associate Research Director and head of the Oncogene Biology Laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute said: “This work opens up a number of new opportunities for improving patient responses to immunotherapy, a crucial step in helping more people survive lung cancer.” 

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women in the United States (when discounting skin cancer), with the organization estimating that 2023 will see roughly 238,340 new cases of lung cancer and 127,070 deaths from the disease. 

Read the original article on Business Insider
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