GAINESVILLE, Fla.---A unique virus genetically related to human herpes viruses could be linked to a serious tumor epidemic threatening the survival of endangered sea turtles worldwide, according to a team of researchers at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine and the Marathon-based Turtle Hospital who first identified it.
Scientists are racing to isolate the new virus so further studies can be conducted to confirm whether it causes the tumors.
The tumors, known as fibropapillomas, erupt on a turtle's soft body tissue and its shell, frequently appearing on or around the eyes, the flippers and even in the mouth. Once the lesions impair the turtle's vision and swimming ability, it has difficulty feeding and ultimately may die.Often the tumors develop within internal organs, such as the lungs and kidneys, and impede normal function.
The research team has detected the virus in more than 95 percent of the tumors plaguing green and loggerhead sea turtles found in the waters surrounding Florida, as well as in tumors on green turtles in Hawaii.
"Transmission studies carried out over the past six years at the Turtle Hospital have demonstrated clearly that this deadly disease is caused by an infectious agent," said Paul Klein, a professor of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine at UF's College of Medicine and an affiliate professor of pathobiology and small animal clinical sciences at UF's College of Veterinary Medicine. "The fact that this virus is associated with or found in more than 95 percent of tumors does not mean it's the cause of the tumor. But it is a strong candidate for the cause of the disease because infection with it is closely associated with tumor development.
"This is the first virus that we consistently found associated with the tumors and not with normal turtle tissues."