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. The VO Program is comprised of physician scientists and basic researchers, and is focused on studying the causes of, as well as prevention and treatment, of viral-associated malignancies such as Burkitts lymphoma (EBV), Adult T-cell Leukemia (HTLV-I), Kaposi’s sarcoma (HHV-8), cervical carcinoma (HPV) and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCV). These types of cancer are endemic in South Florida. To enable these objectives, a balance has been developed within the core membership of funded M.D.s and Ph.D.s which facilitates translational research and allows full advantage of access to primary clinical specimens both from the local patient base and those from international collaborators.

Viral cancers, perhaps like no other forms of malignancies, present a unique non-self target, namely the virus itself. Through the study of host virus interactions, the VO Program will continue to identify new targets for therapy as well as evolve new strategies for disease prevention and treatment, and translate these into the clinic. The main objective of this program is to establish the University of Miami School of Medicine as a preeminent center for the study and treatment of viral-related malignant disease.

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. The following concepts are the foundation for the development of the VO Program:

  • Viral malignancies including EBV-associated lymphoma, HTLV associated leukemia, HCV-associated hepatocellular carcinoma and HPV-associated cervical carcinoma are prevalent within the community and present a unique non-self therapeutic target as well as an outstanding model for understanding mechanisms and evasion of innate immunity. A key objective is to develop novel strategies that exploit these targets.
  • 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.
  • Careful recruitment of talented, funded and collaborative investigators with complementary areas of interest. Recruitment is enhanced by access to primary viral cancers from the unique patient populations. The program can be broadly divided into Basic and Clinical arms, but in reality is highly interactive.

The Viral Oncology Program has longstanding collaborations with several Latin American academic institutions involving clinical and basic research interactions focused on Epstein Barr Virus (EBV), Burkitts lymphoma (BL) and Human T Lymphotrophic Virus Type I (HTLV-I) associated Adult T Cell Leukemia (ATL). This forms the basis for further strengthening Sylvester cancer-focused international projects with countries from the Caribbean basin and South and Central America. Students and physicians from Latin American institutions have been trained at UMMSM for 40 years. This generates friendships that have allowed expanded research opportunities both for the VO Program and those of other Sylvester investigators. This collaboration is invaluable as the diseases seen in developing nations may one day appear in the United States.

In the laboratory, VO Program members are developing pre-clinical strategies for cancer therapy by utilizing small molecule inhibitors and oncolytic viruses as targeted anti-cancer and immunotherapeutic agents.

Goals of the Program

The VO Program focuses on viral cancers and therapeutic targets. The goals of the Viral Oncology 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 the use of oncolytic viruses
  • Implement basic and clinical international collaborative studies in developing nations that have a high incidence of these tumors


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