Cancer-causing HTLV-1 virus is common in parts of Australia

August 7, 2018 by Karl Gruber, Particle
This image revealed the presence of both the human T-cell leukemia type-1 virus (HTLV-1), (also known as the human T lymphotropic virus type-1 virus), and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Human T-cell leukemia virus type-1 (HTLV-1), a human oncoretrovirus, is the etiologic agent of adult T-cell leukemia, and of tropical spastic paraparesis/HTLV-1–associated myelopathy. Two closely related retroviruses, HIV-1 and HIV-2, have been identified as causing AIDS in different geographic regions. HIV-1 causes most cases of AIDS in the U.S., with only a few cases of HIV-2 having been found in the U.S. Epidemiologically, HIV-2 has been found to be mostly an infection of persons from West Africa. Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library

This ancient virus has been infecting humans for over 1500 years, and new figures show a worrisome trend in Western Australia.

The human T cell leukaemia virus type 1, or HTLV-1, is a sexually transmitted virus that causes severe health conditions in humans. Worse still, there is no cure or treatment.

The deadliest of these conditions is a type of cancer affecting the body's T cells. The condition is called HTLV-1-associated myelopathy, and it affects the nervous system, potentially leading to death.

The HTLV-1 virus is an old human foe that has been found in Andean mummies more than 1500 years old, according to one study.

Today, the virus is found around the world, infecting around 5 million to 10 million people, though some parts of the world are worse affected than others. Experts warn that more research is needed to get a more accurate figure.

The HTLV-1 virus was discovered more than 35 years ago in the laboratory of Robert Gallo. He is the co-founder and director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the USA. He also co-discovered the HIV virus back in the 1980s.

The HTLV-1 virus can be transmitted sexually and from mother to child through breastfeeding, but the most efficient mechanism of transmission is through blood, Robert explains.

About 12% of the people infected will develop serious conditions at some point in their lives, particularly cancer.

"Arguably, HTLV-1 is the most cancer-causing agent we know. No other virus or bacteria is known to cause cancer so efficiently," Robert explains.

HTLV-1 in Australia

The HTLV-I virus is thought to have originated from multiple zoonotic events, likely involving the transmission of the virus from monkeys to humans. In Australia, where monkeys do not occur, the origin of this virus likely involved human migration, possibly from Indonesia a long time ago, Robert says.

Regardless of how or when the virus got here, it's been quite successful at spreading and surviving in some populations.

According to recent estimates, in some communities of northern Australia, the rates of infection have reached alarming figures. In Alice Springs, the third-largest town in the Northern Territory, more than 40% of adults are infected with the HTLV-1 virus. Over 30% of these infected people have developed diseases associated with the virus.

Get up to speed on the HTLV-1 virus. Credit: THE INFOGRAPHICS SHOW

This unusually high rate of infection is a bit of a mystery, but it has been attributed to a combination of the stealth infection pattern of the virus—you can get infected and feel perfectly normal for years—and the lack of proper healthcare approaches to prevent its spread.

A solution to this problem would be the development of a vaccine, but so far, there has been little research put towards that end.

No cure in sight?

With little effort put towards eliminating the spread of the virus and a lack of research funds invested in the development of a vaccine, things aren't looking good.

There are currently no healthcare policies in place to educate about this virus or prevent its spread. Robert thinks that part of the problem is that people are not aware of the HTLV-1 virus. This means that more effort is needed by the media to communicate the facts about this virus.

In a recent letter to the WHO, Robert and other world experts recommended several approaches that can be taken to prevent the transmission of the HTLV-1 virus.

Regarding Australia, Robert praised current efforts of the Australian Government to invest funds towards fighting the spread of this virus and believes Australia could become a leader in this arena.

But Gallo also stressed the need to learn more about how this virus works.

"We need more understanding of the immune disorder. That's basic science. It sounds like all the money should be for practical immediate things, but this kind of basic science is practical and needed very much," Robert says.

He thinks that, only when this basic science is understood, there might be hope for the development of a vaccine.

"Certainly, we need research on vaccines and therapies too," Robert adds. At the public health level, he says that good statistics are needed. "We need to know precisely how many people are infected, how they are getting infected," he says.

"To accomplish this, we will need to get the cooperation from all involved communities," he adds.

In the recent letter to the WHO, Robert and Fabiola Martin, at the University of Queensland, highlight some of the key steps needed to beat this disease. So far, 60 signatures from scientists and other stakeholders from around the world support this letter. Hopefully, action follows and HTLV-1 will one day be eliminated for good.

Explore further: Researchers make key discovery about human cancer virus protein

Related Stories

Researchers make key discovery about human cancer virus protein

May 15, 2018
University of Minnesota researchers in the dentistry school-based Institute for Molecular Virology (IMV) have made a key discovery that could have important implications for developing a strategy to stop the spread of a highly ...

Virologists call for worldwide effort to eradicate HTLV-1 virus

May 28, 2018
A pair of noted virologists has sent a letter to the director of the World Health Organization calling for a stronger effort to eradicate HTLV-1—a retrovirus that, among other things, is a cause of adult leukemia. In their ...

Mechanisms of persistent infection for the human T-cell leukemia virus

June 3, 2016
Joint research between scientists from Kumamoto University, Japan and Imperial College London, UK has revealed the mechanisms of persistent latent infection of the human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1). This is an important ...

Discovery of new strains of the HTLV-4 virus in hunters bitten by gorillas in Gabon

July 13, 2016
Scientists from the Institut Pasteur and the CNRS have identified two new strains of the HTLV-4 virus in two hunters who were bitten by gorillas in Gabon. These findings, published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, ...

Leukemia-causing retrovirus HTLV-1 vaccine a future possibility

April 13, 2018
A study appearing in the in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences gives new clues into how cancers like leukemia form from the retrovirus HTLV-1, as well as insights into the possible creation of a vaccine.

Recommended for you

Tibetan sheep highly susceptible to human plague, originates from marmots

August 16, 2018
In the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, one of the region's highest risk areas for human plague, Himalayan marmots are the primary carriers of the infectious bacterium Y. pestis. Y. pestis infection can be transmitted to humans and ...

Autoimmunity plays role in development of COPD, study finds

August 16, 2018
Autoimmunity plays a role in the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to a study led by Georgia State University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center that analyzed human genome information ...

Scientists identify nearly 200 potential tuberculosis drug targets

August 16, 2018
Tuberculosis is one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide. Nearly 2 million people die every year from this infectious disease, and an estimated 2 billion people are chronically infected. The only vaccine, developed almost ...

Reliable point-of-care blood test can help prevent toxoplasmosis

August 16, 2018
A recent study, performed in Chicago and Rabat, Morocco, found that a novel finger-prick test for infection with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii during pregnancy—and many other potential applications—is 100 percent sensitive ...

First mouse model to mimic lung disease could speed discovery of more effective treatments

August 16, 2018
The biggest hurdle to finding effective therapies for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) – a life-threatening condition in which the lungs become scarred and breathing is increasingly difficult – has been the inability ...

Anticancer drug offers potential alternative to transplant for patients with liver failure

August 15, 2018
Patients suffering sudden liver failure could in the future benefit from a new treatment that could reduce the need for transplants, research published today shows.


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.