UNM Cancer Research & Treatment Center to Study link between Epstein Barr virus and Leukemia

Bridget Wilson, Ph.D., co-director of the UNM Cancer Research & Treatment Center's program in Signal Transduction, Cell Adhesion and Trafficking (STAT), has received $50,000 from the Oxnard Foundation to study how infection with the fairly common Epstein Barr virus might lead to leukemia.

Wilson is also an associate professor in the Dept. of Pathology at the UNM School of Medicine. Her research project, "Role Of EB Viral Oncogene LMP2A In T/NK Leukemogenesis," aims to improve understanding of leukemia on a cellular level. The research will explore the link between Epstein Barr virus (EBV) infection and the development of specific types of leukemia, focusing on a specific viral protein that hijacks the cell's normal machinery for growth control and sets the stage for cancer.

One of the long-term goals of the research is the development of novel therapeutic agents that target only virally infected cancer cells for death and protect normal cells in the body.

Researchers already know that for certain cancers there is a strong link to prior infection with specific viruses, including the fairly common EBV, Wilson said. Most people are exposed to EBV at one time or another, she added, but may not even be aware of it unless they come down with a short bout of infectious mononucleosis (or "mono," as it is more commonly known).

"Sometimes the virus hides out in certain white blood cells for many years, without replicating itself," Wilson said. "During this time, which is called latency, only a small number of viral genes are turned on. We hope to figure out why, in rare cases, latent EBV infection leads to leukemia.

"If we can tie it to a specific viral protein, we may be able to turn off the abnormal signals in those leukemic cells and help patients respond better to treatment," Wilson said.

Translational research focuses on finding new scientific discoveries and turning them into therapies or drugs that can be used in a clinical setting on cancer patients for prevention, diagnosis or treatments.

"The funding provided by the Oxnard Foundation supports the UNM Cancer Research & Treatment Center's ability to translate basic science into patient treatments, which is critical to our success in becoming designated as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute," said Cheryl Willman, M.D., director of the UNM Cancer Research & Treatment Center.

The Oxnard Foundation has been a major gift supporter of UNM since 1973, with gifts primarily for medical research and an emphasis on cancer and surgical research.

"We are so pleased to be able to continue helping the university, especially in the area of treating cancers that affect the native populations of New Mexico," said Tom and Caroline Meade of the Oxnard Foundation.

The UNM Cancer Research & Treatment Center, founded in 1972, is the only health care facility in the state dedicated to both cancer research and patient care.

Contact: Lynn Melton, 272-3322

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