Approximately 20 million people are infected with Human T-cell Leukemia Virus type 1 (HTLV-1), and about 6% of this population will develop a pathology associated with this retrovirus. One of these diseases is called adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma (ATLL). ATLL is an aggressive and often fatal proliferation of T CD4+ lymphocytes that can occur after a viral latency period of more than twenty years. To date, there is no effective treatment for ATLL, and individuals diagnosed with the most severe stage of the disease have a mean survival time of six months. The molecular mechanisms leading to the development of ATLL are unclear, although the virally-encoded protein Tax is postulated to have a role in disease progression. The low percentage of infected individuals who develop ATLL and the long latency period suggest that multiple events are required for T-cell transformation. Therefore, defining the mechanisms through which HTLV-1 infection leads to ATLL will increase our understanding of the cellular transformation process in general.
Our research focuses on characterizing the roles of the virally-encoded proteins Tax and HBZ in HTLV-1 transcriptional regulation and in the disruption of cellular gene expression. Tax functions as a transcription factor and, in conjunction with a number of cellular factors that include members of the ATF/CREB family, strongly activates transcription of the HTLV-1 genome. Tax also has oncogenic properties that stem from its ability to deregulate transcription of a number of cellular genes. Less is known about the HBZ protein, which was identified only recently. To date, HBZ has been shown to repress transcription through its interaction with a subset of cellular bZIP proteins, including certain ATF/CREB members. Of specific interest to us is the ability of HBZ to repress transcription driven by the HTLV-1 promoter. In order to define the functions of Tax and HBZ in viral infection, we are analyzing protein/DNA interactions within the cell and in vitro, and determining how these viral proteins affect transcription.