By Brittany Beattie, Production Coordinator
Phoenix, home of the Suns, Diamondbacks and some of the most wonderful November weather I have ever experienced in my life! It was also host to this year’s Association for Molecular Pathology (AMP) Meeting, and a couple of colleagues and I had the privilege of representing ABI at our exhibition booth. Held in downtown’s Phoenix Convention Center, AMP brings together a phenomenal group of professionals from four core groups in the industry. Their research and work encompass the fields of genetics, infectious diseases, hematopathology, and solid tumors. This amazing collection of people are trying to solve some of the world’s most elusive medical quandaries using powerful equipment, massive information processing systems, and some major brain power to boot. Listening to some of the attendees speak about their areas of research sounded like some thrilling crime novel ending in a cliffhanger and leaving you wanting more.
One noticeable divide in the group was between those focusing on infectious diseases and others working in the field of oncology. We had several AMP members stop by our booth, inquiring about our products and quickly retract mentioning their main focus was on cancer biology (as the “Virology Resource Center??? we probably didn’t have the products to meet their needs). After hearing this statement a couple times, it got me thinking, here are two distinct groups of researchers exploring the same technologies side by side, thinking about similar ideas like personalized medicine and rapid diagnostics, yet in many respects they have very different goals in mind. The question that then came to my mind is when would these two groups be collaborators, working side by side to solve the same problems? The answer quickly hit me, like a thermo-cycler to the head, there are many viruses that have been identified as cancer causing agents. These types of findings have driven the industry to explore the connections between viruses and cancer in order to target and develop effective prevention, diagnostic, and treatment strategies.
The most notable example in recent years has been human papillomavirus (HPV) and its connection to cervical and oral cancers. HPV is the most commonly diagnosed sexually transmitted disease in the world. HPV 16 and 18 are associated with 70% of all cervical cancers and is the second most common cancer among females. In 1984, Harald zur Hausen made the discovery that HPV 16 was present in cervical tissue tumors and a year later also found HPV 18 was commonly present as well. This discovery and zur Hausen’s willingness to share this information with private industry led to the development of an HPV vaccine. In 2006, Merck introduced the first vaccine for HPV, Gardasil. It is a quadrivalent recombinant vaccine specific to HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18. A recent report now suggests that since 2006, when the vaccine was introduced to the market, the rate of HPV infection specific to vaccine types has decreased 56% in females ages 14-19. This evidence strongly indicates that these numbers will translate to significant decreases in HPV related cervical cancer cases as this cohort ages.
Other examples of viruses that have been linked to cancer include, Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV), Human Herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8), HTLV-I & II, and Hepatitis B & C. EBV, a gamma herpesvirus, has been associated with Burkitt’s lymphoma and nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is one of the most prevalent cancers in China. HHV-8 too is a gamma herpesvirus, and it causes Karposi sarcoma (KS). In the past, the majority of KS cases were found in males native to mediterranean regions; however, in the 1980’s as HIV infections became an epidemic, KS became the most predominate AIDS-associated disease. HTLV I & II were the first two human retroviruses to be discovered. Both viruses mainly infect T lymphocytes and can cause leukemia and lymphoma. HTLV-1 is the more clinically significant virus of the two and infection often leads to rapidly fatal cancer. As for Hepatitis B and C – the causative agents of severe liver disease – together these two viruses account for 75-80% of liver cancer cases worldwide. The exact mechanism of how these viruses cause cancer is a mystery, but many attribute the cell damage from chronic infection and constant cell growth as factors that could lead to a higher chance of genetic mistakes and genomic instability, ultimately leading to oncogenesis.
After making all of these connections, I realized, with a greater sense of clarity sometimes lost in the details of an assay or the chaos of a production schedule, that underneath the day-to-day business aspect of the industry, lies the opportunity for a truly massive collaborative effort to better human health. Regardless of your area of expertise, we are all striving toward common goals in improving diagnostics and understanding how and why these mysterious diseases continue to alter and impact the course of human health. This is why collaboration is so critical in the scientific community. Big biotech and pharma companies should always remember that outside the realms of revenue and profit, their work ultimately serves a much larger purpose.