Virus DNA integrated into the human body aids fight against cancer
Researchers say that retrovirus codes present in human DNA boost the natural immune system in its fight against cancerous tumors and hope to use this process to develop vaccines to prevent and treat cancer cases.
Ancient viruses that have been present in human DNA for millions of years are aiding our bodies in the fight against cancer, according to a study published by the Francis Crick Institute.
The team of researchers found that the dormant remnants of viruses integrated into human DNA are awoken when cancerous cells multiply unnaturally. This process boosts the immune system in its fight against cancerous tumors.
The report identified B-cells as the main component that gets triggered by the multiplication of cancer cells. The role B-cells, which usually fight foreign bodies, had in relation to resisting cancerous tumors was unknown to scientists before the discoveries of the institute.
"It turned out that the antibodies are recognizing remnants of what's termed endogenous retroviruses," said Prof Julian Downward, an associate research director at the Francis Crick Institute.
Role of B-cells
Retroviruses tend to embed their genetic coding into that of humans, as 8% of what is considered human DNA originates from viruses. Retroviruses have been continuously engraving their coding with humans for millions of years in an evolutionary process is called lateral gene transfer.
These biological components have been extremely useful to humans in some instances, but harmful ones were tightly contained by our cells to prevent them from spreading. The proteins produced by these codes become highly available once a cell becomes cancerous as normal control over the functions of the cell is lost.
The B-cells then identify the proteins as foreign to the body and enact a counteroffensive against the cancerous cells.
"The immune system is tricked into believing that the tumor cells are infected and it tries to eliminate the virus, so it's sort of an alarm system," said Prof George Kassiotis, head of retroviral immunology at the biomedical research center.
Prof Kassiotis says that the retroviruses "might have been causing cancer in our ancestors" since they are changing the genetic makeup of cells, but are now protecting us from cancer, "which I find fascinating", he adds.
The new discoveries researchers hope to utilize this natural process to develop vaccines that aid the body in its fight against diseases and cancer.
Prof Kassiotis stated, "If we can do that, then you can think not only of therapeutic vaccines, you can also think of preventative vaccines."
The findings came out of the broader ‘TracerX’ study, which has been examining lung tumors in unprecedented detail. The study shows that cancerous cells have a "near infinite" evolutionary potential. This prompted the trial's researchers to demand increased attention to cancer prevention, due to the impossibility of stopping it.
"All of us have ancient viral DNA in our genes, passed down from our ancestors, and this fascinating research has highlighted the role it plays in cancer and how our immune system can recognize and destroy cancer cells," said Dr. Claire Bromley, from Cancer Research UK.
The scientist said "more research" is necessary to develop a cancer vaccine but "nevertheless, this study adds to the growing body of research that could one day see this innovative approach to cancer treatment become a reality."