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Communicable cancer: The mounting evidence

Mark Greener looks at at new research suggesting that certain cancers could be directly transmissable

Sometimes revolutionary advances have unlikely origins. In 1909, Peyton Rous, a scientist working at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, started investigating a rare sarcoma – a malignancy arising from connective tissues – in Plymouth Rock chickens. In 1910, he injected a healthy chicken with an extract of the sarcoma. And the chicken developed the malignancy. Rous found he could pass four generations of the sarcoma to chickens. Cancer in chickens, it seemed, could be contagious.1

We now know that the injection spread the Rous Sarcoma Virus; a carcinogenic pathogen. Since Rous’s pioneering discovery, researchers have identified several other cancer-causing viruses.1 In 1958, for example, the Irish surgeon Denis Burkitt reported that many children in the malaria belt in sub-Saharan Africa developed a particularly aggressive lymphoma. Virologists found the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which also causes infectious mononucleosis, lurking in the Burkitt’s lymphomas. EBV was the first infection linked with a human cancer.1

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