Human retroviruses: their role in cancer

Proc Assoc Am Physicians. Nov-Dec 1999;111(6):563-72. doi: 10.1046/j.1525-1381.1999.99210.x.


Viruses are etiologically linked to approximately 20% of all malignancies worldwide. Retroviruses account for approximately 8%-10% of the total. For human T-cell leukemia virus 1 (HTLV-I), the viral regulatory tax gene product is responsible for enhanced transcription of viral and cellular genes that promote cell growth by stimulating various growth factors and through dysregulation of cellular regulatory suppressor genes, such as p53. After a long latent period, adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma (ATL) occurs in 1 per 1000 carriers per year, resulting in 2500-3000 cases per year worldwide and over half of the adult lymphoid malignancies in endemic areas. Human immunodeficiency virus 1 (HIV-1) accounts for a significant cancer burden, and its transactivating regulatory protein Tat enhances direct and indirect cytokine and immunological dysregulation to cause diverse cancers. Kaposi's sarcoma (KS) is a very rare tumor except after HIV-1 infection, when its incidence is greatly amplified reaching seventy thousand-fold in HIV-infected homosexual men. Human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8), which is also known as Kaposi's sarcoma-associated virus (KSHV), is a necessary but not sufficient etiological factor in KS. The dramatic decline of KS since the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) could be due to suppression of HIV-1 tat. B-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma occurs as their first acquired immunodeficiency syndrome-defining diagnosis in 3%-4% of HIV-infected patients. Hodgkin's lymphoma is also associated with HIV infection but at a lower risk. Human papillomaviruses are linked to invasive cervical cancer and anogenital cancers among HIV-infected patients. Human retroviruses cause malignancy via direct effects as well as through interactions with other oncogenic herpesviruses and other viruses.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Antiviral Agents / therapeutic use
  • Anus Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Anus Neoplasms / virology
  • Carcinoma in Situ / epidemiology
  • Carcinoma in Situ / virology
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic
  • Cell Transformation, Viral / genetics
  • Cohort Studies
  • Deltaretrovirus Infections
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Viral
  • Genes, Viral
  • HIV Infections / complications
  • HIV-1 / pathogenicity
  • Herpesviridae Infections / complications
  • Herpesvirus 8, Human / genetics
  • Herpesvirus 8, Human / pathogenicity
  • Human T-lymphotropic virus 1 / pathogenicity
  • Humans
  • Leukemia-Lymphoma, Adult T-Cell / epidemiology
  • Leukemia-Lymphoma, Adult T-Cell / etiology
  • Leukemia-Lymphoma, Adult T-Cell / therapy
  • Leukemia-Lymphoma, Adult T-Cell / virology
  • Lymphoma, AIDS-Related / etiology
  • Lymphoma, AIDS-Related / immunology
  • Lymphoma, AIDS-Related / therapy
  • Lymphoma, AIDS-Related / virology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Neoplasms / etiology
  • Neoplasms / virology*
  • Papillomaviridae / pathogenicity
  • Papillomavirus Infections / complications
  • Retroviridae / genetics
  • Retroviridae / pathogenicity*
  • Retroviridae Infections* / epidemiology
  • Sarcoma, Kaposi / epidemiology
  • Sarcoma, Kaposi / etiology
  • Sarcoma, Kaposi / therapy
  • Tumor Virus Infections* / epidemiology


  • Antiviral Agents