Researchers receive $2.2 million grant to study HERV expression in cancer

November 15, 2016 – WASHINGTON. George Washington University (GW) researchers received a $2.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to uncover why certain cancer types increase whereas others are unchanged or even decrease in those with HIV infection.

Douglas Nixon, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Tropical Medicine at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), is the principal investigator on the grant. He is supported by Eduardo M. Sotomayor, M.D., director of the GW Cancer Center, which provided seed funding for this research. Nixon also collaborated with Brad Jones, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology, immunology, and tropical medicine at GW SMHS, Keith A. Crandall, Ph.D., director of the GW Computational Biology Institute at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at GW, and Gustavo Reyes-Terán, M.D., M.P.H., adjunct professor of microbiology, immunology, and tropical medicine at GW SMHS and head of the Department of Infectious Diseases (CIENI) at the National Institute of Respiratory Infections in Mexico City.

“While I am not primarily a cancer researcher, I believe HIV/AIDS research can provide unique insights into cancer mechanisms and biology,” said Nixon. “I believe this project shows the importance of seed funding, but also of cross-disciplinary work - something GW has made a priority, allowing people from different fields to come together and talk to each other in ways many large institutions do not. I am delighted to be joining the cancer research community and to work with the GW Cancer Center.”

Over the past decade, Nixon’s research team has published extensively on the effect of HIV infection on the expression of human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs), remnants of ancient viruses found in today’s DNA. His team has focused on the youngest of these retroviruses, HERV-K (HML-2). Research shows that HERVs also play a role in the pathogenesis of germ cell tumors, prostate and breast cancers, melanoma, and renal cell carcinoma.

Nixon’s team, which includes Matthew Bendall, a student researcher in Nixon’s and Crandall’s labs, developed a novel computational pathway program, “Telescope,” to pinpoint where HERVs are transcribed in HIV patients. To get a fuller picture, Nixon’s team will use “Telescope” to determine which HERVs are expressed in prostate, breast, and colon cancers, in patients with and without HIV infection, and follow anti-HERV immune responses. Nixon and his research team hypothesize that HIV reactivation of HERVs stimulates anti-HERV immunity, which specifically recognizes HERVs also expressed in certain cancers. They also believe that these HIV-induced HERV specific immune responses target HERVs that are expressed in breast, colon, or prostate cancer.

“We are thrilled to be working with Dr. Nixon at the GW Cancer Center,” said Sotomayor. “We believe this research will have major implications for cancer research, and in the future, cancer patients.”

Source: The George Washington (GW) Cancer Center