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Approximately 20% of all cancers are caused by infectious agents. The UNC Lineberger Virology Research Program aims to understand how human oncogenic viruses cause cancer and develop new therapies and vaccines.

The program focuses on studying viral effects on innate Immunity and inflammation, identifying mechanisms of cancer induction by human tumor viruses, and conducting translational studies in North Carolina and worldwide. It also investigates the basic biology of human cancers, such as virus-cell interactions, viral pathogenesis, and AIDS-associated malignancies.

Program Research

Research areas include:

  • Tumor and tumor virus vaccine development
  • Understanding the immune response to human tumor viruses
  • Studying viral effects on cellular pathways that are prominently altered in human cancer
  • Understanding viral infections in our cancer patients, such as SARS-CoV-2
  • Developing targeted therapies for viral cancers

There are seven human tumor viruses. Members of the Virology Program program seek to understand all of them.

  • The most well known is the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer and a proportion of head and neck cancer
  • Two viruses, Hepatitis C and Hepatitis B virus, are associated with liver cancer
  • Merkel Cell polyomavirus causes rare but rapidly fatal skin cancer
  • HTLV-1 is the cause of adult T-cell leukemia /lymphoma (ATLL), a rare and aggressive form of cancer that affects T-cells
  • Kaposi Sarcoma-associated herpesvirus (KSHV) causes Kaposi Sarcoma (KS), which emerges in response to organ transplantation and HIV infection. In several African countries, KS is the most common cancer in males. Here KS also develops in children.
  • Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) is associated with 10% of gastric cancers, Burkitt lymphoma, and Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma

Studying tumor viruses teaches us about essential pathways for all human cancers. For instance, p53 was discovered because cancer-causing types of HPV degrade it but not the types that cause benign warts.

Program Goals

The Virology Program aims to dissect the molecular interactions between viruses and host cells, describe the molecular events that contribute to viral oncogenesis, and develop small molecules that target these interactions. Because only viral tumor cells express viral proteins, the candidate drugs should have minimal toxicity.

Together with the UNC Lineberger Immunology Research Program, our members study how viruses interact with the immune system, which consists of two arms: innate and acquired Immunity.

Acquired Immunity develops in response to virus infection or vaccination and can be shaped to combat viral cancers.

Innate Immunity prevents tumor viruses from gaining a foothold in the first place. Innate Immunity recognizes aberrant molecular patterns caused by viruses and tumors alike.

Viral proteins often target and disrupt these pathways, compromising immune responses. The program aims to identify these interactions to develop strategies for enhancing immune responses and developing novel cancer prevention and treatment methods.

Program Leadership

The Virology Program is led by Blossom Damania, PhD, and Dirk Dittmer, PhD, who specialize in cancers that develop in people living with HIV. Cancers are now the most common cause of death in people living with HIV in the US.

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