Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center

Viral Oncology Program

Program Leader(s)

Description of the Program

The Viral Oncology (VO) Program was established as one of the nation's most distinctive programs in 1998 by the late Dr. William Harrington, Jr., a leading authority on viral-induced cancers, with a unique focus on studying pathologic mechanisms and pursuing strategies for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of viral-associated malignancies. The following concepts have been the foundation for development of the VO Program:

  • Viral cancers, perhaps like no other forms of malignancies, present a unique non-self target that can be exploited for the development of novel preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic strategies, as well as an outstanding model for understanding mechanisms of cancer initiation and progression, and evasion of innate and adaptive immunity.
  • Virus-associated malignancies, including such as Adult T-cell Leukemia (HTLV-1), Kaposi’s sarcoma (HHV-8), cervical carcinoma (HPV), hepatocellular carcinoma (HCV), and Burkitt’s lymphoma (EBV), are endemic in South Florida. The Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center (Sylvester) and its community partner, Jackson Memorial Hospital (JMH), provide a unique environment like no other in the country from which to build an outstanding program focused on infectious etiologies of cancer.
  • Clinical research within the Program attends to the underserved and generates, rather than consumes, resources for their care. Rather than a burden, this is seen as an opportunity, one that has resulted in nearly two decades of uninterrupted NCI funding.
  • Furthermore, students and physicians from Latin-American institutions have been trained at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine for over 40 years, and this has generated friendships that have allowed expanded research opportunities both for the VO Program and for other Sylvester investigators. In particular, the VO Program has long-standing collaborations with several Latin-American academic institutions involving clinical and basic research interactions focused on the above viral malignancies. This forms the basis for further strengthening Sylvester cancer-focused international projects with countries from the Caribbean basin, Central America, and South America. Such collaborations are invaluable, as diseases in developing nations will one day appear in the United States.

The VO Program is continuing to develop new strategies for prevention of virus infection through sociobehavioral intervention and vaccination, to identify viral proteins and mechanisms involved in carcinogenesis that can serve as new targets for therapy and as diagnostic/prognostic markers, to elucidate virus-host interactions and capitalize on these insights to improve oncolytic virotherapies, and translate these approaches into the clinic. Furthermore, this Program also has a unique focus on the development of novel oncolytic virotherapy and gene therapy strategies that exploit tumor-specific defects in innate immunity, as well as tumor-mediated suppression of adaptive immunity. These characteristics render the tumor microenvironment highly permissive for viral replication in a wide variety of malignancies, even of non-viral etiology. Accordingly, in the laboratory, VO Program members are developing pre-clinical strategies for cancer therapy by utilizing small molecule inhibitors, gene therapy vectors, and oncolytic viruses, as targeted anti-cancer and immunotherapeutic agents. A number of these strategies have already been translated to the clinic and are being evaluated in Phase I / II trials.

Goals of the Program

The main objective of the Viral Oncology Program is to establish the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine as a preeminent center for the study and treatment of viral-related malignant disease and oncolytic virotherapy. The goals of this Program include:

  • Investigate the mechanisms of oncogenesis and innate immune subversion in viral associated cancers, including those that arise in immunocompromised patients
  • Devise novel and targeted therapeutic and preventive strategies for viral-associated malignancies, including vaccination and immunotherapy
  • Apply emerging knowledge of tumor-specific defects in innate immunity and suppression of adaptive immunity to develop and improve targeted drugs, oncolytic virotherapy and gene therapy strategies for many different cancers
  • Develop clinical trials to test novel strategies for cancer prevention and treatment developed through the above efforts, and implement basic and clinical international collaborative studies in developing nations that have a high incidence of viral-associated cancers.


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