About 20 percent of all cancers in the world are caused by infections, but the exact nature of that link is poorly understood. Rashmi Kaul, Ph.D., associate professor of immunology at the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences, wants to determine how infectious diseases lead to the development of cancer.
“Some reports indicate that cancer-causing viruses can hijack the immune system and cause chronic infection and inflammation that lead to cancer,” she said. “I am particularly interested in the immune system, which is a defense system in our body that is supposed to fight infection and kill developing cancer cells.”
Kaul’s research is focused specifically on the role of the hepatitis C virus in the development of liver cancer. There are no vaccines for the virus and only limited treatments exist for chronic hepatitis C infection. Perhaps more importantly, survival rates for liver cancer are low, she said.
“The burning question in my lab is how does the hepatitis C virus evade the immune system and cause persistent infection that leads to the transformation of normal cells to cancer cells,” she said.
Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus. It is transmitted by blood and can cause both acute and chronic infection. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 150 million people in the world have chronic hepatitis C infection, a significant number of whom will develop liver cirrhosis or liver cancer.
“Another important aspect of our studies is the hormonal influence on how the virus affects males and females,” she said. “Males with chronic hepatitis C infection are prone to developing liver cancer, while females are protected before menopause. After menopause and the loss of estrogen, the virus can reactivate and cause chronic infection.”
Kaul is working to determine which mechanism within the immune system fights hepatitis C infection in some people and leads to chronic infection in others.
“It is critical to develop therapies that will eradicate infection at early stages so that we do not allow the virus to become chronic, develop into liver disease and lead to cancer,” she said. “If we had effective therapies and vaccines, we could reduce the huge burden of cancer from this chronic infection.”
Kaul has been recognized as a national expert on cancer research and was recently included in “The Cancer Prevention Handbook.” The book, which includes research from across the U.S., explores the causes of cancer and tools people can utilize for cancer prevention.