ERV + Cancer = Virus???

Whoa!

I dont know how much stock to put into this particular paper, but some (potentially) incredible data just came out in Journal of Virology:

Human endogenous retrovirus K (HML-2) elements in the plasma of people with lymphoma and breast cancer

HERV-K (human endogenous retroviral family K) are the babies of human ERVs– they are the youngest addition to our genome (they became endogenous 200,000-5 million years ago), and related to a mouse retrovirus, MMTV.

These scientists did something kind of odd. They looked at patients that were healthy, had Rheumatoid Arthritis, HIV-associated lymphoma, non-HIV-associated lymphoma, HIV-associated Hodgkin lymphoma, or breast cancer, and just went fishing for ERVs floating around in their blood. Contrary to the claims of Creationists, who desperately want ERVs to be ‘functional’, normal people do NOT have retroviral particles derived from ERVs bopping around their bloodstream… but would cancer patients? Would they lose the ability to control their pirate DNA?

YUP! These scientists found em! ERVs, that are normally silent, were making detectable particles in lymphoma and breast cancer patients (not the healthy or arthritis patients). Cancer patients, for some reason, lost the ability to keep these bits of selfish DNA from carrying out their ultimate goal: replicate, spread.

These scientists used a few different methods to detect viral particles–
–They used PCR with several different kinds of HERV-K specific primers, and found ERV RNA in blood.
–They used RT assays to see if there was any reverse transcriptase in the blood.
–They did Western Blots to see if there was any Gag or Env protein in the blood.
–And they used electron microscopy to actually see viral particles in the blood!

They also assessed the level of ERV RNA in the blood pre- and post-cancer-treatment. Patients that went into remission had their ERV RNA levels drop below their detection limit, while patients who did not go into remission still have ERV RNA floating around!

Again, Im not sure what exactly to make of this data yet– I dont want to get too excited, but maybe these particles are actually infectious and are perpetuating/worsening the cancer. Maybe anti-retrovirals could act as anti-cancer agents! … but we dont know if thats the case, yet.

The authors do make the point that even if their observations are an artifact, even if these viral particles pop up, but they are harmless, detecting these little guys might still be useful as a relatively simple clinical tool! History of breast cancer in your family? Maybe you should get RT assays done on your blood, in addition to regular mammograms! Maybe the particles pop up before a mass is detectable! Undergoing treatment for lymphoma? Hey, your ERV RNA levels arent going down… maybe you should try a different anti-cancer drug.

Preliminary research, but they might be on to something!

Comments

  1. #1 Jared
    October 22, 2008

    That’s actually pretty neat research. I don’t have the time right now to read the paper, but it certainly seems interesting. How many patients were in the study?

  2. #2 richbank
    October 22, 2008

    And this is a perfect example of why I love science. Incredible :)

  3. #3 James F
    October 22, 2008

    [Casey Luskin]
    But ERVs clearly function in cancer patients, so Darwinism is false!
    [/Casey Luskin]

  4. #4 Joshua Zelinsky
    October 22, 2008

    That’s really cool. As someone who comes from a family with a history of cancer new detection methods are always of interest. But this is independently just really neat.

    I wonder if the creationists are to twist this into something that backs up their claims. Straining to think of one… I know! This shows that ERVs are functional since they provide an early warning against cancer. Never mind that this obviously won’t work for the ERVs that have been in the genome for a longer time and never mind that it isn’t at all clear given this preliminary that this provides a useful detection mechanism against cancer and never mind that it would almost certainly be easier to modify the human genome to more effectively protect against cancer. And never mind that it implies a designer would have added something in and then not given us the relevant technology but force us to discover it on our own. Did I miss any else we need to never mind?

  5. #5 Becca
    October 22, 2008

    Curse them for not describing the chromosomal context of the ERV site and whether or not there might be lymphoma/breast cancer oncogenes in the region that might open up the chromatin!

    Curse them again for not testing more different sorts of cancer!

    Silly virologists. Putting so much effort into showing the virus is really there. I don’t care if it makes functional virus, I wanna know if it’s cause or effect!

  6. #6 Dagor
    October 23, 2008

    Very interesting. Thx for the heads up.

  7. #7 Tatarize
    October 23, 2008

    That’d probably make a good cancer test then.

  8. #8 Stacy S
    October 23, 2008

    “Again, Im not sure what exactly to make of this data yet– I dont want to get too excited …

    Well one thing’s for sure – whatever knowledge is gained is a good thing.

  9. #9 Cath@VWXYNot?
    October 23, 2008

    I haven’t read this actual paper yet, but these studies have popped up occasionally over the 6 years that I’ve been interested in ERVs. Until this paper came out I dismissed most of them as describing an effect, not a cause, of the cancer / schizophrenia / whatever. (This is because transcriptional control, DNA methylation etc. is so screwed up in cancer cells that ERVs get released from the control mechanisms that usually stop them from being expressed). Now I’m less cynical, the MS paper I summarised in that link was amazing, but I think these guys have a really really long way to go before they convince everyone.

  10. #11 Paul Lundgren
    October 25, 2008

    Abbie, I just read your comment about Sarah “Froot flie reesurch iz stoopid” Palin over at Pharyngula. I just wanted to thank you for the laugh, and to ask you again: will you marry me? That was hilarious.

  11. #12 Hamsterpoop
    October 25, 2008

    I think you meant 200,000 to 500,000 years ago instead of 5 million. Just saying…

    By the way, poop…

  12. #13 NP
    October 25, 2008

    Very interesting paper….I would’ve liked to see the researchers test the plasma of cancer patients with known mutations e.g. BRCA1 mutations and compare them to other cancer patients.

    Keep us posted, ERV…it would be awesome if a causal link could be found as we already have several antiretrovirals on the market and it could potentially mean there’d be more treatment options available for advanced cancer patients.

  13. #14 wesele
    November 2, 2008

    Never mind that this obviously won’t work for the ERVs that have been in the genome for a longer time and never mind that it isn’t at all clear given this preliminary that this provides a useful detection mechanism against cancer and never mind that it would almost certainly be easier to modify the human genome to more effectively protect against cancer.