When most people think of viruses, they visualize dangerous agents that rapidly cause illnesses such as influenza and polio. Surprisingly, virus infections are also responsible for 15% of human cancer deaths worldwide, and there are likely additional undiscovered viruses that cause various human cancers. Furthermore, because infection with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) suppresses the immune system, HIV infection and AIDS are indirectly implicated in many cases of cancer.
Teams of researchers within Yale Cancer Center’s Molecular Virology program see the viral causes of cancer as an opportunity to prevent cancer, as well as to improve patient survival and outcomes. Determining that a type of cancer is caused by a virus provides new approaches to prevent or treat the cancer. Virally induced tumors, such as the 19,000 cancer diagnoses caused by Human Papillomaviruses (HPV) in men and women every year in the United States—and the hundreds of thousands of such tumors worldwide—can be prevented with vaccines already in use.
How to develop vaccines that target localized viral infections is one of the many ambitious research areas for Dr. Akiko Iwasaki, Professor of Immunobiology and of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, and recently awarded Howard Hughes Medical Investigator.