Alberta Cancer Foundation

Alberta researcher makes breakthrough

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Andrew Mason, a researcher and professor at the University of Alberta, held fast to a theory that many over the years have tried to disprove. His commitment has paid off – this winter, he published a paper that sets him well on his way to proving a long-
controversial point.

For more than a decade, Mason has been working to identify the connection between human betaretrovirus infection (HBRV) and a liver disease called primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC). The disease is one that affects the bile duct in the liver, and Mason’s research shows that HBRV is commonly present in the cells of patients with PBC. There has also been some evidence of HBRV being linked to breast cancer.

The idea that HBRV could cause a form of cancer was first introduced in the 1970s, but the technology at the time could not track the low levels it presented with, and the scientific community couldn’t agree on if it was a true infection. Research and discussion into the links between HBRV and breast cancer stalled in the 1980s, when HIV emerged. As well, other liver disease researchers have been unable to detect HBRV and claimed no connection with PBC. “This is often how science works,” Mason says. “So we used next generation sequencing to show the virus inserted into the DNA of damaged biliary cells, and it’s hard to do that … But what else do you do? You don’t give up.”

Mason’s work has also found that patients with liver disease are responsive to anti-retroviral therapy. His research’s publication is just one step along the way to proving the link. His team is now completing a randomized controlled trial that they hope will help lead to further proof of the link. All the answers are still slow coming, but Mason’s already proved he’s a patient researcher. Funding for his research was partly provided through the Alberta Cancer Foundation, the Canadian Liver Foundation and Canadian Institutes of Health Research.