Scientists: Viruses that have existed for millions of years help fight cancer

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Million-year-old viruses help fight cancer. image: GETTY IMAGES.

According to scientists, the body fights cancer with the aid of remnants of ancient viruses that have spent millions of years hidden inside human DNA.

A study conducted by the Francis Crick Institute has revealed that dormant remnants of ancient viruses are activated when cancerous cells undergo uncontrolled growth.

Surprisingly, this activation triggers the immune system to recognize and attack the tumor.

The research team aims to leverage this discovery to develop vaccines that can enhance cancer treatment or even prevent it altogether.

The scientists observed that B-cells, a component of the immune system, tend to cluster around tumors, and this phenomenon was correlated with improved survival rates in lung cancer patients.

This finding opens up new possibilities for harnessing the immune system’s natural defenses against cancer and developing innovative immunotherapies.

 B-cells, a part of the immune system, produce masses of antibodies that can help to attack invaders. Image: GETTY IMAGE.

B-cells, which are renowned for their role in producing antibodies to fight infections like Covid, were found to play a surprising role in lung cancer.

Intricate experiments involving samples from patients and animal tests conducted by the Francis Crick Institute revealed that B-cells were still actively involved in fighting viruses.

The antibodies produced by B-cells were found to recognize remnants of endogenous retroviruses, shedding light on the mystery of their presence in lung cancer.

According to Prof Julian Downward, an associate research director at the Francis Crick Institute, this discovery provides valuable insights into the complex interplay between the immune system, cancer, and viral remnants, and opens up potential avenues for developing innovative cancer therapies.

Retroviruses possess a unique ability to insert their genetic material into our own DNA.


  •  over 8% of the human genome consists of remnants of retroviruses. 
  • Some of these viral sequences became permanent fixtures in our genetic code millions of years ago and are shared with our evolutionary relatives, the great apes. 
  • Other retroviruses may have entered our DNA more recently, within the past few thousand years. 

This fascinating phenomenon sheds light on the intricate and dynamic relationship between viruses and human evolution, and underscores the complex nature of our genetic makeup.

The intricate relationship between retroviruses and cancer becomes even more intriguing as some of these ancient genetic instructions are repurposed for useful functions within our cells over time, while others are tightly controlled to prevent their spread. However, within a cancerous cell that is growing uncontrollably, the once strict regulation of these retroviral remnants is lost, resulting in chaos.

Although these remnants are no longer capable of resurrecting complete viruses, they can generate fragments that are enough to trigger the immune system into recognizing a viral threat.

This sets off an alarm system, tricking the immune system into believing that the tumor cells are infected with a virus. As a result, the immune system mobilizes other components to eliminate the “infected” cells, effectively targeting and attacking the cancerous cells.

This role reversal of retroviruses, which may have been implicated in causing cancer in our ancestors due to their invasive nature in our DNA, now serving to protect us from cancer, is a remarkable discovery.

As Prof George Kassiotis, head of retroviral immunology at the biomedical research center, puts it, “which I find fascinating.” It underscores the complex and evolving relationship between viruses, our immune system, and the development of cancer, shedding new light on the intricate interplay between these elements within our bodies.

The findings of this study, published in the journal Nature, reveal that this natural phenomenon of the immune system recognizing and targeting retroviral remnants in cancer cells could potentially be enhanced through the development of vaccines.

By teaching the body how to identify and attack endogenous retroviruses, therapeutic vaccines could be developed to boost cancer treatment, and even preventative vaccines could be envisioned.

The research emerged from the TracerX study, which has been meticulously tracking lung cancers to unravel their evolutionary patterns in unprecedented detail.

The study’s findings highlight the remarkable ability of cancer cells to continuously evolve, leading the researchers to emphasize the importance of focusing on cancer prevention, as stopping its progression proves to be challenging.

Dr. Claire Bromley from Cancer Research UK acknowledges the significance of this research in shedding light on the role of ancient viral DNA in cancer and the immune system’s potential to recognize and eliminate cancer cells.

She highlights the need for further research in developing cancer vaccines, while noting that this study adds to the growing body of evidence that could pave the way for innovative approaches to cancer treatment in the future.

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