Washington, Jan 18 : Researchers at University of Pittsburgh have identified a previously unknown virus, which might be behind a deadly skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma.
The study, conducted by Patrick Moore, M.D., professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and leader of the molecular virology program at UPCI, used a novel sequencing technique to identify the new cancer virus.
In the study, the researchers explain a nearly decade-long effort to harness the sequencing technology to identify the virus, which they call Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV). While the research team emphasizes that their work does not prove MCV to be the cause of Merkel cell carcinoma, if the findings are confirmed, they may lead to new cancer treatment and prevention options.
"This is the first polyomavirus to be strongly associated with a particular type of human tumor. Although polyomaviruses have been studied in relation to cancer development for years, the weight of scientific evidence had been leaning toward the view that these viruses do not cause human cancers," said Moore.
Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare but extremely aggressive cancer that spreads rapidly into other tissues and organs. It develops from specialized nerve cells that respond to touch or pressure.
"If these findings are confirmed, we can look at how this new virus contributes to a very bad cancer with high mortality, and, just as importantly, use it as a model to understand how cancers occur and the cell pathways that are targeted. Information that we gain could possibly lead to a blood test or vaccine that improves disease management and aids in prevention," said Moore.
In the study, the researchers analysed nearly 400,000 messenger RNA genetic sequences from four samples of MCC tumor tissue using a technique refined in their lab called digital transcriptome subtraction (DTS).
Comparing the sequences expressed by the tumor genome to gene sequences mapped by the Human Genome Project, the researchers systematically subtracted known human sequences, leaving a group of genetic transcripts that might be from a foreign organism.
One sequence was similar to but distinct from all known viruses. The team went on to show that this sequence belonged to a new polyomavirus present in eight of 10 Merkel cell tumours they tested but only five of 59 control tissues from various body sites and four of 25 control skin tissues.
The study is published in the journal Science.