NIH Funds UND Study Of Early Formation Of Cancer-Causing Viruses

Barry Milavetz researches epigenetic modifications in infected cells when they’re most easily treatable

Barry Milavetz

A particular virus called simian virus 40 or SV40 — a virus found in monkeys that can cause cancer in certain other animals and is closely related to a number of similar human viruses — is the focus of a $139,000 National Institutes of Health grant to UND Associate Vice President for Research and Economic Development Barry Milavetz. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

 The list is long.

From the common cold and influenza to HIV and measles, and from Zika to some cancers, all are caused by viruses — tiny packages of either DNA or RNA that wear a protein coat.

They shouldn’t be confused with bacteria. Viruses aren’t technically “alive.” They are parasites that need a host — that means you and me — to “live” in and reproduce. To do that, viruses are hijackers. They infect human cells with a simple and sometimes deadly message: make more viruses.

A particular virus called simian virus 40 or SV40 — a virus found in monkeys that can cause cancer in certain other animals and is closely related to a number of similar human viruses — is the focus of a $139,000 National Institutes of Health grant to UND Associate Vice President for Research and Economic Development Barry Milavetz to continue his research on SV40.

Milavetz is interested in how SV40 duplicates itself in an infected cell and, in particular, how the cell environment around the virus, or the cell’s epigenetics, modifies SV40 to become a virus particle. The purpose of the NIH grant is to identify the mechanisms that cause the modifications in epigenetic structure during the formation of a virus particle.

“We are particularly interested in the epigenetic changes occurring during the very first stage of an infection, since this is the time that the infection is most easily treatable,” Milavetz said.

Milavetz, who is also a professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and Meera Ajeet Kumar, working as a technician, expect to identify all of the epigenetic changes occurring during the formation of an SV40 virus particle and determine the factors responsible for the changes and how those factors function.

“A number of drugs are in various stages of development that target factors involved in epigenetic regulation,” Milavetz said. “Our results may be useful for identifying drug targets that can be exploited for treating infections by this group of viruses.”

“Our research on epigenetic regulation of SV40 infections will advance our knowledge of how viruses infect cells and cause cancer, and also yield insight with respect to epigenetic regulation of our own genes,” he said.

By Denis MacLeod, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences writer