Ancient viruses in our bodies may combat cancer 2023


Remains of ancient viruses handed down in human DNA over millions of years might be a useful target for antibodies against lung cancer.

The new study published in Nature was aimed at better understanding diverse patient responses to immunotherapy therapies. The study found that antibody-producing B cells near tumors improve treatment responses.

The scientists detected endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) in human DNA from ancestors who survived viral infections. These cells trigger the immune system to combat cancer.

“With more research, we could look to develop a cancer treatment vaccine made up of activated ERV genes to boost antibody production at the site of patient’s cancer and hopefully improve the outcome of immunotherapy treatment,” George Kassiotis, head of the Retroviral Immunology Laboratory, said in a statement.


London’s Francis Crick Institute examined immune cell activation in lung cancer mice and human tumor tissues. B cells create tumor-binding antibodies to boost lung cancer immunity, the same the way they do after flu or SARS-CoV-2 vaccination.

Despite targeted and immunotherapeutic breakthroughs, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths globally. “Predicting immune checkpoint blockade (ICB) responses is difficult, with 70% of patients failing to respond despite high mutational burden,” researchers wrote in Nature.

The scientists observed that tumor-binding antibodies recognized endogenous retrovirus (ERV) proteins. This viral DNA makes up around 5 percent of the human genome and is carried down from infections endured by our ancestors.

Because T cells kill tumor cells, they are being studied against cancer. But our data reveal a crucial role for antibody responses and also how these responses may be increased with immunotherapy,” Katey Enfield, postdoctoral training fellow at the Crick noted.

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Checkpoint inhibition treatment affected B cell activity and ERV expression.

“ERVs have been hiding as viral footprints in the human genome for thousands or millions of years so it’s fascinating to think that the diseases of our ancestors might be key to treating diseases today,” said George Kassiotis.

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