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A type of herpes virus, one that causes mono, can in rare cases raise the risk of developing certain types of cancer. And now researchers know how: The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) can directly latch onto bundles of genetic material in infected cells, and switch “on” nearby genes that turn healthy cells cancerous, according to a new study in human cells.

Not all people who become infected with EBV go on to develop cancer; but in rare instances, the virus can raise people’s risk of developing nasopharyngeal cancer, Burkitt’s lymphoma and certain stomach cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. While more than 90% of people catch the virus worldwide, only about 1.5% of cancer cases are linked to the infection, according to a 2019 report in the journal Annual Review of Pathology. Other viruses that drive cancer growth, such as hepatitis B and human papillomavirus (HPV), do so by worming their way into the genomes of their infected host — but EBV takes a different approach, researchers just found.

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