Viruses cause white skin cancer

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Human papilloma viruses promote the development of skin cancer

White skin cancer is not only caused by UV light, but viruses play an important role in the development of this cancer, which often occurs in older people, said Lutz Gissmann from the German Cancer Research Center (DFZ) in Heidelberg, explaining the results of his current research.

As part of their study, the DKFZ researchers investigated a possible connection between the so-called human beta-papillomaviruses and the development of skin cancer in mice. Lutz Gissmann and colleagues found that animal skin cells became more susceptible to harmful UV radiation due to "the beta-papilloma viruses". The human papilloma viruses are "causally involved in the development of cancer," said Gissmann.

Viruses increase the carcinogenic effects of sunlight In their investigations, the DKFZ scientists found that the human papillomaviruses (HPV) play an essential role in the development of white skin cancer. Gissmann and colleagues planted certain gene segments of the beta-papillomaviruses in the skin cells of the mice and then irradiated the animals with UV light. The researchers found that the viruses - when exposed to UV light at the same time - significantly increased the risk of skin cancer. The virus genes E6 and E7 used in the skin cells were already known from previous studies as a possible cause for the uncontrolled cell growth and the formation of cancer cells. A connection with the occurrence of skin cancer has not yet been established, the scientists explained the reason for their investigations. As part of the DKFZ study that has now been carried out, the beta-papillomaviruses on the upper skin layer of the infected test animals caused uncontrolled cell growth, but skin cancer did not develop from it initially, report Gissmann and colleagues in a current press release. Subsequent irradiation with UV light, however, clearly showed the first signs of skin cancer.

Human papilloma viruses as the cause of white skin cancer Lutz Gissmann explained that human papilloma viruses are clearly identified as a possible cause of white skin cancer by the current studies. For some time now, there have been doubts in the professional world that UV light is the only cause of white skin cancer, since, for example, people after an organ transplant are at about a hundred times higher risk of white skin cancer. So far, no other causes have been identified, said Lutz Gissmann. However, the assumption was obvious that "an infectious agent could also be involved in the development of cancer", emphasized the expert. With the beta-papillomaviruses, the DKFZ researchers have now clearly determined another influencing factor in the development of white skin cancer.

The carcinogenic effects of the viruses have been known for a long time Before the current research by the DKFZ, human papillomaviruses were known as possible causes of various cancers. These so-called DNA viruses are so diverse that there are already more than 100 different types. Many of them only infect the skin or the mucous membranes. However, according to the experts, human papilloma viruses are not only considered a possible cause of cervical cancer, but are also more frequently involved in cancer of the penis, vulva, anus and mouth. Many of the HPV would be transmitted during sexual intercourse, with the infection rate of women under the age of 30 being up to 25 percent. After the onset of the infection, according to the experts, it often heals without further symptoms over a longer period (up to one and a half years). No more precise information on the infection rates is available for men.

Vaccination against skin cancer possible? Due to the carcinogenic effects of papilloma viruses, the DKFZ researchers have been working on the development of appropriate vaccines for years. For example, Lutz Gissmann has been involved in the development of a vaccine against cervical cancer since 2006. According to Gissmann, the newly discovered relationships with the development of white skin cancer also suggest that "a vaccine against the beta-papillomavirus could prevent white skin cancer". However, experts believe that there is still some research to be done before a skin cancer vaccine can be developed. (fp)

Read also about skin cancer:
New drugs for skin cancer presented
White skin cancer is increasing rapidly
Dangerous black skin cancer
Sunscreen does not protect against skin cancer

Photo credit: Dieter Schütz /

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