The Connection between HIV and Cancer

May 18, 2017

With a $2.2 million National Cancer Institute grant, Douglas Nixon, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Tropical Medicine and Walter G. Ross Professor of Basic Science Research at the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), alongside GW collaborators, is examining how human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) impact certain types of cancers.

HERVs are ancestral remnants of past viruses that, passing from mother to child, have been integrated into DNA. Nixon’s research team, which has published studies on the effect of HIV infection on HERVs, has found there may also be a link between HIV and cancer.

“It appears that breast and prostate cancer are found less frequently in HIV-infected people than in the general population,” Nixon says.

Nixon and his team hypothesized that HERVs stimulate an immune response, which surveils prostate and breast cancer cells that could be expressing the same HERVs. To test this theory, Nixon, with Ph.D. rotation student Matthew Bendall and Keith Crandall, Ph.D., director of the GW Computational Biology Institute at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at GW, developed “Telescope,” a computational pathway program, to determine which HERVs are expressed in prostate, breast, and colon cancers, in patients with and without HIV.

“This is really a brand new tool, which we think will be incredibly valuable to look for expression of these endogenous retroviruses in a number of different disease categories, including in cancer,” Nixon says.

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