According to new research, a virus previously implicated in the onset of Kaposi's sarcoma has now been linked to the development of Merkel cell carcinoma, a dangerous skin cancer.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute have developed a way of isolating the virus, named Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV).
Polyomaviruses have been linked to cancer in animal studies.
"This is the first polyomavirus to be strongly associated with a particular type of human tumor," says Dr. Moore, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and leader of the molecular virology program at UPCI, in a release.
"Although polyomaviruses have been studied in relation to cancer development for years, the weight of scientific evidence had been leaning toward the view that these viruses do not cause human cancers."
Merkel cell carcinoma is a fast progressing skin cancer that develops from nerve cells and quickly invades other tissues and organs in the body. This type of cancer has increased dramatically over the 20 years and now averages 1,500 cases per year.
Those vulnerable to this form of cancer are immune-suppressed individuals — such as those taking drugs to prevent the rejection of a transplant — and AIDS patients.
The survival rate is not high. About 50 per cent of patients succumb to the disease within nine months.
In the study, researchers discovered that many people carry MCV, though in many it never develops into cancer.
Says Moore "Information that we gain could possibly lead to a blood test or vaccine that improves disease management and aids in prevention."
He likens the possible future treatments to the HPV vaccine that protects against certain strains of cervical cancer.