One of the most common viruses in humans may promote breast cancer development

August 1, 2016
Micrograph showing a lymph node invaded by ductal breast carcinoma, with extension of the tumour beyond the lymph node. Credit: Nephron/Wikipedia

New research reveals that infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) may put some women at increased risk for developing breast cancer. The findings, published online in the July issue of the journal EBioMedicine, may have important implications for breast cancer screening and prevention.

EBV, one of eight known viruses in the herpes family to infect humans, is also one of the most common viruses and is best known as the cause of infectious mononucleosis. More than 90 percent of the world's population carries EBV, and most individuals experience no effects from infection. In certain individuals, however, EBV has been linked to various cancers, including African Burkitt lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease, nasopharyngeal carcinoma, gastric adenocarcinoma, and leiomyosarcoma. Also, an association of EBV infection with has been reported in several studies, but it's unclear how the virus may play a role in breast cancer development and/or progression.

To investigate, a team led by Gerburg Wulf, MD, PhD, a physician scientist in the Hematology/Oncology Division at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, cultured breast cells called primary mammary epithelial cells (MECs) in the presence of EBV.

The researchers found that the virus binds to the CD21 receptor on normal breast cells, leading to infection. EBV infection causes the cells to take on characteristics of stem cells, which can keep dividing. When MECs were implanted into mice, EBV infection cooperated with certain cancer-causing proteins to accelerate the formation of breast cancer. When the investigators analyzed the genes of MECs infected with EBV, they found genetic characteristics associated with high-grade, estrogen-receptor-negative breast cancer (an aggressive form of the disease).

"We think that if a young woman develops EBV during her teenage years or later, her breast epithelial cells will be exposed to the virus and can be infected. While for most individuals, there will be no long-term consequences, in some the infection may leave genetic scars and change the metabolism of these cells," explained Wulf. "While these are subtle changes, they may, decades later, facilitate breast cancer formation."

The research indicates that a contribution of EBV to the development of breast cancer is plausible, through a mechanism in which EBV infection predisposes MECs to become malignant but is no longer required once the have become cancerous. "The findings further make the case for an EBV vaccine that might protect children from and later EBV-associated malignancies," said Wulf.

Explore further: Immune system discovery could lead to EBV vaccine to prevent mono, some cancers

Related Stories

How a ubiquitous herpesvirus sometimes leads to cancer

October 10, 2013

You might not know it, but most of us are infected with the herpesvirus known as Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). For most of us, the virus will lead at worst to a case of infectious mononucleosis, but sometimes, and especially ...

Study reveals new clues to Epstein-Barr virus

February 21, 2013

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) affects more than 90 percent of the population worldwide and was the first human virus found to be associated with cancer. Now, researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) have broadened ...

NIH scientists outline steps toward Epstein-Barr virus vaccine

November 2, 2011

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infects nine out of ten people worldwide at some point during their lifetimes. Infections in early childhood often cause no disease symptoms, but people infected during adolescence or young adulthood ...

Young killer cells protect against infectious mononucleosis

December 19, 2013

More than 90 percent of all adults are carriers of the oncogenic Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV). Primary infection with this herpes virus as a young child is generally not linked to any symptoms, and usually offers life-long protection ...

Recommended for you

New method offers potential for uncovering how cancer begins

January 18, 2017

At Baylor College of Medicine, scientists have developed a method that allows them to accurately determine the genes expressed in single cells. Among other applications, this technique can be useful to study how cancerous ...

Study reveals why cancer cells spread within the body

January 17, 2017

Each day, more than 1,600 people die from cancer in the US, and 450 in the UK, mostly because the disease has spread beyond a stage when surgery is an effective cure and has become resistant to therapy. Despite decades of ...

Researchers identify new target for cancer immunotherapy

January 17, 2017

Massachusetts General Hospital investigators have found new evidence that the tumor necrosis factor receptor type II (TNFR2) may be a major target for immuno-oncology treatments, which induce a patient's immune system to ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.