Cancer Viruses

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Cancer Viruses

Cancer Viruses: Hepatitis B Virus Particles
Hepatitis B Virus Particles (red): The hepatitis B virus has been linked to liver cancer in people with chronic infections. CDC/ Dr. Erskine Palmer

Cancer Viruses

Researchers have long attempted to elucidate the role that viruses play in causing cancer. Worldwide, cancer viruses are estimated to cause 15 to 20 percent of all cancers in humans. Most viral infections however, do not lead to tumor formation as several factors influence the progression from viral infection to cancer development. Some of these factors include the host's genetic makeup, mutation occurrence, exposure to cancer causing agents, and immune impairment. Viruses typically initiate cancer development by suppressing the host's immune system, causing inflammation over a long period of time, or by altering host genes.

Cancer Cell Properties

Cancer cells have characteristics that differ from normal cells. They all acquire the ability to grow uncontrollably. This can result from having control of their own growth signals, losing sensitivity to anti-growth signals, and losing the ability to undergo apoptosis or programmed cell death. Cancer cells don't experience biological aging and maintain their ability to undergo cell division and growth.

Cancer Viruses: Transformation

Transformation occurs when a virus infects and genetically alters a cell. The infected cell is regulated by the viral genes and has the ability to undergo abnormal new growth. Scientists have been able to discern some commonality among viruses that cause tumors. The tumor viruses change cells by integrating their genetic material with the host cell's DNA. Unlike the integration seen in prophages, this is a permanent insertion in that the genetic material is never removed. The insertion mechanism can differ depending on whether the nucleic acid in the virus is DNA or RNA. In DNA viruses, the genetic material can be directly inserted into the host's DNA. RNA viruses must first transcribe RNA to DNA and then insert the genetic material into the host cell's DNA.

Cancer Viruses: Classes

There are two classes of cancer viruses: DNA and RNA viruses. Several viruses have been linked to certain types of cancer in humans. These viruses have varying ways of reproduction and represent several different virus families.

DNA Viruses

  • The Epstein-Barr virus has been linked to Burkitt's lymphoma. This virus infects B-cell lymphocytes of the immune system and epithelial cells.
  • The hepatitis B virus has been linked to liver cancer in people with chronic infections.
  • Human papilloma viruses have been linked to cervical cancer. They also cause warts and benign papillomas.
  • Human herpes virus-8 has been linked to the development of Kaposi sarcoma. Kaposi sarcoma causes patches of abnormal tissue to develop in various area of the body including under the skin, in the lining of the mouth, nose, and throat or in other organs.

RNA Viruses

  • Human T lymphotrophic virus type 1 (HTLV-I), a retrovirus, has been linked to T-cell leukemia.
  • The hepatitis C virus has been linked to liver cancer in people with chronic infections.

NEXT > Cancer Treatment

American Cancer Society
NIH: National Cancer Institute

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Cancer Virus Treatment

Cancer Viruses: Treatment

Insight into the development and spread of cancer viruses has lead scientists to focus on preventing potential cancer development by either preventing viral infection or by targeting and destroying the virus before it causes cancer.


that are infected by




called viral antigens which cause the cells to grow abnormally. These antigens provide a means by which virus infected cells can be distinguished from healthy cells. As such, researchers are attempting to find therapies that would single out and destroy virus cells or

cancerous cells

while leaving non-infected cells alone. Current cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation kill both cancerous and normal cells. Vaccines have been developed against cancer viruses such as hepatitis B and human papilloma viruses (HPV) 16 and 18. Multiple treatments are required and in the case of HPV 16 and 18, the vaccine does not protect against other forms of the virus. The largest impediments to vaccination on a global scale appears to be treatment cost, multiple treatment requirements, and the lack of proper storage equipment for the vaccines.

Cancer Viruses: Research

Scientists and researchers are currently focusing on ways to use viruses to treat cancer. They are creating genetically modified viruses that specifically target

cancer cells

. Some of these viruses infect and replicate in cancer cells, causing the cells to stop growing or shrink. Other studies focus on using viruses to improve

immune system

response. Some cancer cells produce certain molecules that prevent the host's immune system from recognizing them. The vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) has been shown not only to destroy cancer cells, but to halt their production of immune system inhibiting molecules. Although human trials are underway concerning these types of virus therapies, further studies must be done before virus therapies can be used as an alternative cancer treatment.


American Cancer Society
NIH: National Cancer Institute

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Your Citation
Bailey, Regina. "Cancer Viruses." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2015, Bailey, Regina. (2015, August 27). Cancer Viruses. Retrieved from Bailey, Regina. "Cancer Viruses." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 22, 2017).