Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymph nodes that commonly strikes young adults, may be caused by the Epstein-Barr virus, which is thought to infect many people, British and Dutch researchers have found. They suggest it may even be possible to develop a vaccine against the virus that would prevent the disease.

The virus is known to produce other types of cancers, but until recently, researchers had been able to find it in only a small percentage of Hodgkin's tumors. However, the researchers reported last week in the British journal The Lancet that they identified a protein from the virus in cancer cells from 40 of 84 Hodgkin's patients studied.

The viral protein, called latent membrane protein (LMP), stimulates cell growth. When cultured cells are deliberately infected with the virus, LMP appears to help transform them into cancer cells.

The researchers, from the University of Birmingham and Holland's Aarhus Institute of Pathology, found evidence of the virus in Hodgkin's disease cells by using special antibodies -- chemical tags that can bind only to the viral protein and thus reveal its presence. They also found that the protein's presence correlated with tumor aggressiveness: In the worst variety of Hodgkin's, it was found in 98 percent of cases.