A scientist at the National Institutes of Health will get a $100,000 prize for showing how viruses can cause or promote cancer in animals -- and very probably in people.

Dr. Wallace H. Rowe, chief of the viral disease laboratory at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will be one of four men to get the third annual General Motors Cancer Research Foundation prizes. The awards are to be announced in New York today.

Rowe's study of viruses has shed light on far more than cancer. It has helped biologists understand how viruses act or "express themelves" in many conditions. It has helped them learn more about cell differentiation -- the way cells that look the same develop into different organs. It has revealed some of the cell's control mechanisms.

Much of his work has involved retroviruses, which cause leukemia, sarcoma and breast cancer in many animals. He showed how the viruses fail to reproduce after infection a host, but can grow in the presence of another virus.

He showed how mouse leukemia virus genes become integrated with the genes of their animal host, and how two genetically transmitted viruses can interact to cause leukemia.

Rowe's work may help lead to prevention of many kinds of cancer, a statement from the GM foundation said.

Three other scientists will get $100,000 prizes. They are:

Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, of the Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, for developing bone marrow transplantation to treat acute leukemia and aplastic anemia; Dr. Takashi Sugimura, director of the National Cancer Center Research Institute in Tokyo, for showing how some chemicals in foods can lead to cancer and birth defects, and Dr. Cesar Milstein, of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, for learning to produce hybridomas -- unlimitede quantities of identical antibodies that may help identify and treat many kinds of cancer, among other uses.