Assistant Professor, Virology, School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences
Assistant Professor, BIO5 Institute
Assistant Professor, Cancer Biology - GIDP
Assistant Professor, Genetics - GIDP
Papillomaviruses (PVs) are a diverse family of dsDNA viruses infecting most, if not all, amniotes. Papillomaviruses infect cutaneous or mucosal epithelia. While most infections are self-limiting, persistent infection with specific human papillomaviruses has been shown to be the causative agent for cervical cancer. All established oncogenic HPV types belong to a single viral genus (the Alphapapillomaviridae). Of note, phylogenetically, these oncogenic HPV types cluster into a so-called high-risk (HR) clade, indicating an evolutionary relationship between these viruses. Importantly, not all HPV types within this HR clade are associated with cancer.
I am intrigued by the observation that only a limited subset of human papillomaviruses is oncogenic. Throughout my studies I have used a combination of biochemical assays and computational analyses to understand why evolutionarily related viruses differ in their ability to cause cancer in humans.
It is improbable that the ability to cause cancer provides papillomaviruses with an evolutionary advantage. It is likely that many of the viral functions linked to oncogenesis were evolutionarily beneficial as papillomavirus adapted to novel environmental niches on the host (e.g. external genitalia vs. cervix). Papillomaviruses have evolved to usurp the cellular machinery to complete their life-cycle. The papillomaviral lifecycle perturbs the normal differentiation cycle of the infected cell, forcing cells to divide far beyond their normal lifespan. It is feasible that the continued insult provided by replicating viruses eventually results in malignant transformation of the infected cell. However, while persistent infection is key to viral oncogenesis, many long-term persisting viruses do not cause cancer. By carefully interrogating the differences between these viruses, I believe it will be possible to elucidate which viral phenotypes are associated with oncogenic progression. The pathways targeted by these viruses may represent powerful targets for therapeutic intervention.