The most common type of head and neck cancer in Singapore has been linked by scientists to a unique strain of the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV).
EBV-infected individuals from the Cantonese dialect group are 20 times more at risk of developing nasopharyngeal carcinoma – otherwise called Cantonese cancer – than people from other regions or populations, the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) said.
In total, 20 to 40 cases of Cantonese cancer are recorded per 100,000 individuals each year, GIS added.
In a statement, A*Star’s Genome Institute of Singapore said that its study found that individuals infected with the new EBV strain are 11 times more at risk for developing nasopharyngeal carcinoma.
Currently, over 40 per cent of people in the southern part of China, where Cantonese is commonly spoken, are infected with this high-risk EBV strain. According to the scientists, 80 per cent of the nasopharyngeal carcinoma cases in the Cantonese dialect group are also driven by this high-risk EBV strain.
GIS added that the unique strain seems to have originated in Asia, followed by expansion in regions where nasopharyngeal carcinoma is endemic.
GIS said: “The discovery of these EBV viral variants paves the way for the implementation of effective intervention programmes that may reduce the disease’s incidences in Asia.”
According to GIS, EBV was the first human virus to be associated with cancer in 1964. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states on its website that EBV is a member of the herpes virus family, and one of the most common human viruses as most people get infected at some point in their lives, particularly in childhood. It is spread via bodily fluids, primarily saliva, the center added.
In the current study published in Nature Genetics this week, scientists from GIS and other research institutes sequenced a large batch of viral genomes from two groups of people: nasopharyngeal carcinoma patients and individuals who are infected with EPV but did not contract the cancer.
The subjects were sourced from both NPC-endemic and non-endemic regions, GIS said.
Executive Director of GIS, Professor Ng Huck Hui, said: “The discovery of these high-risk EBV viral variants has important implications for public health efforts to reduce the burden of nasopharyngeal carcinoma, particularly among Cantonese speakers.”
“Testing for these variants enables the identification of high-risk individuals for routine clinical monitoring to detect nasopharyngeal carcinoma early,” he added.
Prof Ng also said that primary prevention through early detection and the development of vaccines against these EBV strains would greatly reduce the incidence rate of Cantonese cancer.
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