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Cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes

The 1989 Nobel Prize went to J. Michael Bishop and Harold E. Varmus originated in the host genome, where they influence normal cellular growth and proliferation.

In 1916, Peyton Rous discovered the Rous virus, which is made of RNA and can cause cancer in chickens. After that, many viruses were found to carry genes, known as oncogenes, which could cause cancer in infected cells. By the 1960s, some people wrongly thought that all human cancers were the result of viral infections.

In the 1970s, J. Michael Bishop and Harold E. Varmus investigated the Rous virus oncogene. They isolated the gene and created a probe that was complementary to it. Using this probe, they found that similar genes were present in healthy chicken cells, and the cells of many other animals, in fixed positions in their genomes. The gene was found to control growth and division in normal cells. Bishop and Varmus concluded that the viral oncogene was originally found in the DNA of animals, and that at some point in the virus’ history, it had acquired the gene from its host cells.

Since Bishop and Varmus’ discovery, many more oncogenes have been found in animals and humans. They all serve important functions in the lives of normal cells. However, if they are mutated or duplicated, they can result in cancer. This knowledge has presented new opportunities for research into possible cancer treatments.


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