Link Virus and Brain Tumors

Report Links Virus, Tumors To Kids

February 20, 2002 WASHINGTON (AP)

A virus that infects about 65 percent of all children by the age of 14 may play a role in the development of the most common type of malignant brain tumor found in the young, researchers report.

In a study appearing in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers say that proteins from the JC virus were found in 20 specimens of brain tumors taken from children.

Kamel Khalili, senior author of the research, said that "the presence of the virus ... is suggestive of a biological role for this virus in the development of these tumors."

Khalili, a cancer researcher at Temple University in Philadelphia, said that earlier laboratory studies have shown that JC virus causes cancer in rats and mice, and that it can cause brain tumors in certain New World monkeys.

JC virus is in a viral group called the neutropic polyomaviruses. It typically infects the upper respiratory system in the same way as the common cold, with airborne particles. The name of the virus, JC, comes from the initials of a patient, John Cunningham, from whom the virus was first isolated in the 1970s, said Khalili.

"It is very common," he said. "Sixty-five to 70 percent of human populations worldwide get infected with this virus by age 14, so we all basically have this virus in our bodies."

The virus causes no disease unless a patient's immune system is weakened or destroyed, such as in AIDS patients, or in patients who take drugs to prevent rejection of a transplanted organ, said Khalili. In those patients, JC virus can cause progressive multifocal leukoenchephalopathy (PML), a fatal brain disease. About 4 percent of all AIDS patients develop PML.

Now, said Khalili, evidence suggests that JC virus also plays a role in the development of the most common brain cancer in children, medulloblastoma. This type of cancer is diagnosed annually in about one out of every 200,000 children under the age of 15. It is a very aggressive cancer that is difficult to treat and often is fatal.

Khalili said that if it can be conclusively proven that JC virus does play role in the brain cancer, then it may be possible to develop a vaccine that could help in treating the tumor or preventing its spread.

Dr. Eugene O. Major of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke said that Khalili's study "raises some very interesting questions" about the role of JC virus in brain cancer among children.

But he cautioned that the study, which involved only 20 specimens, does not offer conclusive proof that the virus causes the cancer.

Major said that although some other viruses have been shown to cause cancer, "we really don't understand the significance of these viral proteins in these tumors. That will take more detailed study ... of many more tumors."

Copyright 2002 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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