When COVID-19 began to spread around the world, the results were devastating because our immune systems weren’t prepared to fight against the new virus. But scientists believe that the properties of viruses that humans have encountered long ago might actually hold the key to improving our health in the future.
Unlocking the power
A team of researchers at the Francis Crick Institute recently highlighted evidence showing that human DNA appears to release fragments of ancient viruses in response to an invasion of replicating and spreading cancer cells.
When this material comes into contact with a tumor, it appears to help the body fight off the disease. So far, studies indicate that these viral remnants are particularly effective in battling lung cancer and the so-called B-cells that form around tumors.
If scientists can isolate and refocus these natural antibodies, there’s growing optimism that it could revolutionize cancer treatment — or even provide the blueprint for a cancer vaccine.
Exploring the unknown
At this point, experts acknowledge that they’re not entirely sure how or why this observed phenomenon occurred, but they’re hopeful that further investigation will result in groundbreaking healthcare advancements.
Professor George Kassiotis advised: “The immune system is tricked into believing that the tumor cells are infected and it tries to eliminate the virus, so it’s sort of an alarm system.”
It all boils down to the presence of “retroviruses” buried deep within the genetic material of all humans. Here’s what we do know about it:
- More than 8% of our DNA came from historical viruses.
- Some of that material dates back to primates that lived millions of years ago.
- Other viral genes were introduced to human DNA much more recently.
Some of these antibodies can be beneficial if released, but our bodies tend to closely control others that might be harmful.