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Owens Medical Research Foundation awards $100,000 to Texas Biomed researcher to study ancient virus segments in human DNA and their potential role in inducing cancer

Dr. Diako Ebrahimi uses computational analysis to identify mutational patterns in cancer patients

San Antonio, Texas (December 4, 2020) – The William and Ella Owens Medical Research Foundation awarded Diako Ebrahimi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Texas Biomedical Research Institute (Texas Biomed), $100,000 to study the role of ancient viral segments of human DNA in cancer. These viral fragments are remnants of ancient infections, which have been passed down to humans over a long course of evolution. Dr. Ebrahimi, a quantitative biologist, and his team will analyze mutation data sets from >10,000 cancer patients to identify changes caused by DNA editing enzymes of the APOBEC3 family, some of which are known antiviral enzymes of the human immune system. His team will then analyze the relationship between this information with the activation of viral DNA segments in cancers.

This proposal has the potential to reveal the internal viral sources of cancer and lead to the development of novel prevention or treatment strategies, Dr. Ebrahimi said.

“The general public may not be aware that our DNA contains nearly 100,000 pieces of viral DNA. Our team wants to investigate if these genetic materials play a role in cancer initiation and/or evolution,” he said. “We will specifically look at these viral regions as potential targets for mutation by APOBEC3 enzymes.”

We anticipate our studies will enable future precision medicine research to determine which APOBEC3 genes in which patients are candidates for anti-cancer gene therapy without compromising the patients’ immune system, he added.

APOBEC3 enzymes are responsible for fighting infection. They aid the body in combatting invading viruses as well as suppressing viruses already within human DNA. These enzymes have also been reported to be responsible for inducing mutations in many cancers, including lung, breast, bladder and cervical cancers. It is known that at least 15% of cancers are linked to infection by external viruses, such as hepatitis B, which causes liver cancer, and the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer. However, little is known about the role of internal viruses in cancer. By analyzing the DNA of cancer patients, researchers can pinpoint the viral classes targeted by APOBEC3 enzymes.

“This component of our immune system essentially serves as a double-edged sword,” Dr. Ebrahimi said. “On one hand, they protect our cells by suppressing viral segments of our DNA. On the other hand, they can also induce cancer mutations when triggered by the activation of internal viruses.”

The William and Ella Owens Medical Research Foundation was founded in San Antonio, Texas and awards grants to original research on the cause, treatment or prevention of human diseases or disorders. The founders of the foundation, Bill and Ella Owens, are long-serving supporters of Texas Biomed.


Texas Biomed is one of the world’s leading independent biomedical research institutions dedicated to eradicating infection and advancing health worldwide through innovative biomedical research. Texas Biomed partners with researchers and institutions around the world to develop vaccines and therapeutics against viral pathogens causing AIDS, hepatitis, hemorrhagic fever, tuberculosis and parasitic diseases responsible for malaria and schistosomiasis disease. The Institute has programs in host-pathogen interactions, disease intervention and prevention and population health to understand the links between infectious diseases and other diseases such as aging, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. For more information on Texas Biomed, go to