The virus was first discovered in patients with Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare, aggressive skin cancer that occurs mainly in the elderly and people with a suppressed immune system.
"Originally it was thought that this virus caused only this rare skin cancer, but our findings indicate that it is a lot more prevalent than we initially thought," said principal investigator Amanda E. Toland, assistant professor of molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics and a researcher with the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Centre - James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.
During the study, the researchers examined tissue samples from 58 people with squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), a highly curable form of skin cancer.
They identified the virus in more than a third of the patients and in 15 percent of the tumours tested.
In addition, all of the virus found in tumour cells had a mutation that could enable the viral DNA to integrate into the DNA of the host cell.
"This is indirect evidence that the virus might play a role in causing some cases of squamous cell carcinoma," said Toland.
The investigators detected the virus in 26 of 177 SCC samples, 11 of 63 adjacent-skin samples, and one sample from a mouthwash.
In all, 21 of 58 SCC patients were tested positive for the virus.
"That suggests that the virus may develop a mutation that causes it to integrate into host-cell DNA, and, therefore, may play a role in causing the cancer," said Toland.
She wants to test normal skin in healthy individuals to learn how common this virus is in people generally and to learn whether the virus actually integrates with the host DNA.
"If it proves to be a cancer-causing virus, and if it proves to be common in the general population, it might be something we should begin screening people for," she added.
The study appears in Journal of Investigative Dermatology.