New therapeutic target identified for rare virus-associated lymphomas

New therapeutic target identified for rare virus-associated lymphomas

7 October 2020
Targeting a ‘cell survival’ protein could be a valuable new approach to treating certain blood cancers associated with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), according to research resulting from a collaboration between scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Australia and the University of Birmingham, UK.

Smiling researcher
Dr Nenad Sejic has led research identifying a potential
new approach to treating blood cancers associated with
Epstein-Barr virus.

The research team discovered that the protein BCL-XL was required for survival of cells from EBV-associated T/NK cell lymphomas, which are rare but aggressive blood cancers, mainly found in East Asia and South America.

The discovery, published in Blood Advances, suggested that blocking the function of BCL-XL could be an effective approach to treating these lymphomas, and that similar treatments might be effective for other cancers associated with EBV.

The research was led by Dr Nenad Sejic and Dr Gemma Kelly from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, with Dr Claire Shannon-Lowe from the University of Birmingham.

At a glance

  • EBV-associated T/NK cell lymphoma is a rare and aggressive blood cancer with few treatment options.
  • Our researchers have discovered that inhibiting the cell survival protein BCL-XL can kill EBV-associated T/NK cell lymphoma cells in the laboratory.
  • The finding suggests drugs that target BCL-XL might be an effective treatment for people with EBV-associated T/NK cell lymphoma.

Tackling a rare cancer

Smiling researcher
Dr Gemma Kelly co-led the research, which identified
the 'cell survival' protein BCL-XL as a potential
therapeutic target in EBV-associated T/NK lymphoma

EBV is one of the most common viruses worldwide, infecting most people at some point in their lives – often without any symptoms. EBV causes ‘glandular fever’ in some people, particularly in young adults, and also increases a person’s risk of developing certain cancers.

Some EBV-associated blood cell-derived cancers arise from immune cells called NK and T cells, said Dr Sejic. “While these EBV-associated T/NK cell lymphomas are very rare, they are also very aggressive and respond poorly to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. New, effective treatments would be of great benefit to people with these lymphomas – most of whom live in East Asia or South America,” he said.

The research team focussed on the proteins that keep EBV-associated T/NK cell lymphoma cells alive.

“In the last decade there has been great success in targeting ‘cell survival’ proteins in a range of blood cell-derived cancers, so we looked to see whether this approach might be effective in EBV-associated T/NK cell lymphomas,” Dr Sejic said.

“Using T/NK lymphoma cell lines in the laboratory, derived from patients, we showed that the protein BCL-XL was essential for keeping these cells alive. When we blocked BCL-XL, the cells rapidly died, suggesting that targeting this protein might be an effective treatment for EBV-associated T/NK cell lymphomas,” he said.

“The research also identified that blocking both BCL-XL plus another related survival protein, MCL-1, could further enhance the killing of these T/NK lymphoma cells.”

New approaches to targeting cell survival

Dr Kelly said using medicines to target BCL-XL as a cancer treatment had proved challenging because this protein is also important for the survival of platelets, a vital cell type in the body.

“There is intense interest in developing new approaches to target BCL-XL given many cancers rely on this survival protein. We are hopeful there will soon be new and safe approaches to blocking BCL-XL function, or even lowering the levels of BCL-XL selectively in cancer cells,” she said.

“Our research has identified EBV-associated T/NK cell lymphomas as one type of cancer that could respond well to these approaches, if they are shown to be safe. The ultimate goal would be to find approaches to safely combine BCL-XL inhibitors with existing MCL-1 inhibitory drugs that are already in clinical trials, given we have seen a role for MCL-1 in these cancers.”

The research also highlighted the potential for BCL-XL to be a therapeutic target in other EBV-associated cancers.

“While some more-common EBV-associated cancers have already been well-studied, we hope our research might inspire further investigations of other rare cancers, for which new treatments are urgently needed,” Dr Kelly said.

Dr Sejic undertook the research as a PhD student, supported by a University of Melbourne-University of Birmingham Priestley PhD Scholarship.

The research was also supported by the Dyson Bequest, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, the UK Medical Research Council, the Victorian Cancer Agency, Cancer Council Victoria, the Leukemia Foundation of Australia, the US Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society, Universitas 21, The Craig Perkins Cancer Research Foundation, the Redstone Foundation Bequest and the Victorian Government.


WEHI Authors: Dr Nenad Sejic, Ms Catherine Chang, Dr Olga Kondrashova, Dr Ping Lan, Professor Guillaume Lessene, Professor Andreas Strasser and Dr Gemma Kelly.


Media inquiries

M: +61 475 751 811 


Super Content: 
Two researchers smiling at the camera

Want to be informed of our most exciting discoveries? Subscribe to our quarterly newsletter, Illuminate.

Researcher facing news media crews

Catch up on our latest research discoveries and announcements.

MCL-1 team in the laboratory

Institute researchers have discovered that targeting a cell ‘survival’ protein could help treat some lymphomas, including those that are resistant to existing therapies.

Professor Andrew Roberts in the lab

Professor Andrew Roberts discusses the results of a clinical trial of a potential new anti-cancer agent on ABC Radio.

Animation still image

This two-part animation from WEHI.TV explains the type of programmed cell death called apoptosis, and how the anti-cancer drug venetoclax works by forcing susceptible cells into this process.

Dr Jason Brouwer in a laboratory

Institute researchers uncovered key steps involved in programmed cell death, offering new targets for the treatment of diseases including lupus, cancers and neurodegenerative diseases.