Spring 2019

Shutting down viruses to stop cancer

Artistic representation of the Epstein-Barr virus

Adam Cheng shadows doctors who care for organ transplant patients, then heads to the lab to try to solve their problems. 

“One of the major complications of transplant patients is reactivation of viruses, including Epstein-Barr virus and Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus,” says Cheng, who is pursuing an M.D. and Ph.D. through the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Medical Scientist Training Program. In most cases, he says, the virus will remain dormant. However, sometimes viruses can reactivate and jumpstart the development of cancer cells.

Now Cheng and his colleagues believe they’ve found a way to stop that process. Under the guidance of Reuben Harris, a College of Biological Sciences professor, Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota member, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, they learned how those viruses shield themselves from the immune system. Then they used genome engineering to delete the viruses’ defense proteins. 

“If you can knock out that defense protein, then your immune system can do its job and kill the virus,” Cheng says.

The research was published in Nature Microbiology in November. It’s great exposure for Cheng, who has benefited from the Wilfred Wetzel Fund for Graduate Fellowship and other support. “Scholarships like these give me the opportunity to go to conferences to network with other scientists and researchers,” he says.