Scientists discover new viruses that can help identify persons at high risk of 'Cantonese cancer'

An image of a cancer cell. Scientists in Singapore have have identified new variants of the Epstein-Barr Virus that are associated with various cancers. PHOTO: A* STAR

SINGAPORE - Scientists in Singapore have identified new variants of a virus that are associated with various cancers - including one that affects Cantonese people more than others.

This could make it easier to identify individuals at high risk of developing the cancers, and get them to undergo intervention programmes early.

The scientists discovered that the two new Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) variants are associated with the most common head and neck cancer in Singapore - nasopharyngeal carcinoma - as well as gastric cancer and several kinds of lymphoma.

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is also called Cantonese cancer, as individuals from the Cantonese dialect group who are infected with the EBV virus are 20 times more at risk of developing the cancer than those from other regions or populations.

In the latest study published in scientific journal Nature Genetics on Monday (June 17), the scientists discovered a unique EBV strain that is associated with increased risk of developing Cantonese cancer.

Individuals with the strain are 11 times more likely to develop the cancer than non-carriers.

This high-risk EBV strain appears to have originated in Asia. Currently, over 40 per cent of individuals in southern China are infected by this strain. About 80 per cent of cancer cases among individuals from the Cantonese dialect group are caused by this strain.

The scientists involved in the study are from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), and several research institutes including Sun Yat-sen University Cancer Centre and Institute of Zoology of Chinese Academy of Sciences .

GIS deputy executive director Liu Jian Jun, who is the lead author, said the importance of EBV viral variants in the development of Cantonese cancer, as well as its widespread occurrence among the Cantonese group, have been poorly explored in the past, and his study "provided novel insights into the (Cantonese cancer) endemic".

Dr Liu added that the findings have the potential to provide the basis for implementing effective intervention programmes to reduce the number of cases of Cantonese cancer.

GIS' executive director Ng Huck Hui said: "The discovery of these high-risk EBV viral variants has important implications for public health efforts to reduce the burden of (Cantonese cancer), particularly among those from the Cantonese dialect group."

Professor Ng said that testing for such variants will enable the identification of individuals who are at high risk, and the early detection of the cancer.

The development of vaccines against the EBV strains is expected to "greatly reduce" the cancer's incidence rate, he added.

Correction note: This article has been edited for clarity.

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