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Exploring Epstein-Barr Virus Target

Nearly every adult carries the Epstein-Barr virus. Most will never know it, but for some, the virus will lead to cancer. University of Nebraska–Lincoln biologist Luwen Zhang has identified a gene that the virus targets to cause disease. His research may one day lead to better treatments against Epstein-Barr virus-related lymphomas.

Photo of Luwen Zhang

Zhang received $545,682 from the National Institutes of Health's National Cancer Institute funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to expand his research. He is a faculty member in the Nebraska Center for Virology at UNL.

Epstein-Barr virus, one of the herpes viruses related to chickenpox, primarily infects B-lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. Normally, the infection causes little damage, but for some people, the virus forces cells to divide abnormally, forming tumors in lymph nodes. Immunodeficient people, such as organ transplant recipients or those with AIDS, are especially at risk.

When a virus invades, the cell often initiates a process that causes its own death. In Epstein-Barr virus-related lymphomas, however, the virus changes the expression of genes within the cell's DNA to block the cell-death process.

Zhang has identified a gene targeted by the Epstein-Barr virus. The gene codes for interferon regulatory factor-4, a protein that normally helps cells. The virus alters the protein's expression, blocking cell death and contributing to the formation of cancer cells. ARRA funding is allowing him to investigate that process.

“The virus that causes lymphoma is pretty common,” Zhang said. “We have limited treatments, but this particular gene might lead to a good molecular target for the development of anti-lymphoma therapy.”

Epstein-Barr virus may be the primary cause of lymphomas in AIDS patients. Understanding how the virus targets this cellular gene for lymphoma formation also may help researchers find better therapies against AIDS.

With ARRA funding, Zhang has hired a new postdoctoral fellow, a technician and a graduate student. He also has purchased new equipment from U.S. companies.

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  • Lymphoma
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