Public Release: 

GW researchers receive $2.2 million grant to study HERV expression in cancer

GW researchers received funding from the National Cancer Institute to look at the impact of human endogenous retroviruses in certain cancers

George Washington University

WASHINGTON (Nov. 16, 2016) - George Washington University (GW) researchers received a $2.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to uncover why certain cancer types increase whereas others are unchanged or even decrease in those with HIV infection.

Douglas Nixon, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Tropical Medicine at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), is the principal investigator on the grant. He is supported by Eduardo M. Sotomayor, M.D., director of the GW Cancer Center, which provided seed funding for this research. Nixon also collaborated with Brad Jones, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology, immunology, and tropical medicine at GW SMHS, Keith A. Crandall, Ph.D., director of the GW Computational Biology Institute at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at GW, and Gustavo Reyes-Terán, M.D., M.P.H., adjunct professor of microbiology, immunology, and tropical medicine at GW SMHS and head of the Department of Infectious Diseases (CIENI) at the National Institute of Respiratory Infections in Mexico City.

"While I am not primarily a cancer researcher, I believe HIV/AIDS research can provide unique insights into cancer mechanisms and biology," said Nixon. "I believe this project shows the importance of seed funding, but also of cross-disciplinary work - something GW has made a priority, allowing people from different fields to come together and talk to each other in ways many large institutions do not. I am delighted to be joining the cancer research community and to work with the GW Cancer Center."

Over the past decade, Nixon's research team has published extensively on the effect of HIV infection on the expression of human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs), remnants of ancient viruses found in today's DNA. His team has focused on the youngest of these retroviruses, HERV-K (HML-2). Research shows that HERVs also play a role in the pathogenesis of germ cell tumors, prostate and breast cancers, melanoma, and renal cell carcinoma.

Nixon's team, which includes Matthew Bendall, a student researcher in Nixon's and Crandall's labs, developed a novel computational pathway program, "Telescope," to pinpoint where HERVs are transcribed in HIV patients. To get a fuller picture, Nixon's team will use "Telescope" to determine which HERVs are expressed in prostate, breast, and colon cancers, in patients with and without HIV infection, and follow anti-HERV immune responses. Nixon and his research team hypothesize that HIV reactivation of HERVs stimulates anti-HERV immunity, which specifically recognizes HERVs also expressed in certain cancers. They also believe that these HIV-induced HERV specific immune responses target HERVs that are expressed in breast, colon, or prostate cancer.

"We are thrilled to be working with Dr. Nixon at the GW Cancer Center," said Sotomayor. "We believe this research will have major implications for cancer research, and in the future, cancer patients."


Media: To interview Dr. Nixon or learn more, please contact Lisa Anderson at or 202-994-3121.

About the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences: Founded in 1824, the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) was the first medical school in the nation's capital and is the 11th oldest in the country. Working together in our nation's capital, with integrity and resolve, the GW SMHS is committed to improving the health and well-being of our local, national and global communities.

About the GW Cancer Center The George Washington (GW) Cancer Center is a collaboration between GW Hospital, The GW Medical Faculty Associates, and the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences to expand GW's efforts in the fight against cancer. The GW Cancer Center also partners with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at GW, and incorporates all existing cancer-related activities at GW, serving as a platform for future cancer services and research development. Learn more about the GW Cancer Center at

About the GW Computational Biology Institute The George Washington (GW) Computational Biology Institute brings together leading faculty in medicine, biology, public health, and computing to harness biological and patient information, open new doors of discovery that have the potential to benefit millions. Learn more about the GW Computational Biology Institute at

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