Ka-Wei Tang
Photo: Elin Lindström

Ka-Wei Tang receives SSMF’s Large Grant

Ka-Wei Tang is one of two researchers at Sahlgrenska Academy to receive this year’s Large Grant from the Swedish Society for Medical Research (SSMF). He conducts research on viruses that cause cancer and is well on the way to developing a new strategy for a possible treatment for cancer caused by the Epstein-Barr virus, a virus that almost all adults carry.

Ka-Wei Tang’s research spans basic and clinical science at Sahlgrenska Center for Cancer Research at Medicinareberget. He has assembled a team consisting of molecular biologists, bioinformaticians, and medical doctors. His line of research on the Epstein-Barr virus has been supported by the Wallenberg Centre for Molecular and Translational Medicine (WCMTM), and he now has secured another four years of research time. With SSMF’s Large Grant of almost SEK 5.7 million, he can continue to combine his resident physician position in clinical microbiology at Sahlgrenska with research at Medicinareberget.

Now the fun begins

“At this point, we have had time to determine the characteristics of cancer tissues very well with single-cell sequencing. We have also been able to show that Epstein-Barr virus-positive cancer cells die if viral components are eliminated. Now the fun begins,” says Ka-Wei Tang, smiling broadly.

The Epstein-Barr virus is a herpesvirus that most people become infected with at a young age. After recovery, the virus remains dormant in the body. Almost all adults carry the latent virus but have no symptoms. However, the virus can cause several different diseases, including in rare cases stomach cancer and lymphoma, a blood cancer. The risk of developing a lymphoma caused by the virus increases in patients treated with immunosuppressive drugs after transplantation or whose immune system is weakened for other reasons.

Inactivates the virus gene

Ka-Wei Tang’s team has developed a computer-based technology to unconditionally characterize which viral genes are expressed in cancer associated with the Epstein-Barr virus. The team has analyzed viral gene expression in the form of RNA data from more than 200 tumors. They were unable to find RNA from well-known viral cancer genes, which was unexpected. But they found high levels of RNA from the RPMS1 virus gene in almost all tumors. The RPMS1 virus gene is a type of long non-coding RNA, which means it does not produce a protein.
“In experiments with cell lines positive for the Epstein-Barr virus, we have seen that the growth and survival of cancer cells decreases markedly when we eliminate viral RNA.”

Good timing

Simply put, the research team creates an inverted copy of the RPMS1 gene that docks into and neutralizes the gene. The team is currently studying the mechanisms involved and the current hypothesis is that RNA from the Epstein-Barr virus binds cellular proteins, leading to the disruption of natural cellular functions. When this RNA is then blocked, the cell can react to the viral infection.
The viral genes may be a new pharmaceutical target and serve as the basis for an advanced form of treatment called Anti-Sense Oligonucleotides. Appropriately enough, such medications will be developed within the new OligoNova initiative in Gothenburg.

“The timing is very good. I have now started looking for clinical partners to see if our results can be transferred from the petri dish to patient material.”

In addition to Ka-Wei Tang, Ana Luis has been awarded SSMF’s Large Grant, and Akademiliv will interview her in a future issue. Both Ka-Wei Tang and Ana Luis received support from the Research and Innovation Services prior to the application and interview for the grant from SSMF.

This text was originally published in

Text and photo: Elin Lindström