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Medicine Technology

Scientists Ponder the Prospect of Contagious Cancer ( 121

Cancer causes many deaths each year, and anyone that's lost someone to cancer knows how painful and grueling it can be. The one saving grace is that it ultimately only kills the host. But is this changing? According to several recent papers, scientists have suggested that cancer could become contagious. Cancer cells could have the ability to metastasize, not just from organ to organ, but from person to person. While this is not an imminent threat, it has already happened in unusual circumstances.
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Scientists Ponder the Prospect of Contagious Cancer

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 23, 2016 @01:38AM (#51564881)

    Apparently the Tazmanian Devils in Tazmania are currently suffering for a contagious cancer outbreak. Devils get into fights and claw each other's noses, the cancer cells transfer into the wounds and multiply. Screws up their faces.

    So for humans, it would be sorta like a zombie-like plague...

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      HPV is transmissible between humans and tends to cause tissue changes that may lead to cancer. Perhaps these viruses should be seen as a life cycle stage of the cancer.. scary thoughts, scary thoughts.

      • Nope. It's a symbiosis, at best. If the virus really carries a host genetic material in order to bring the cancer itself. Viruses do that, sometimes. Then again, cancer in no way helps the virus spread.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Except cancer won't generally spread from human to human. A "cancer transplant" won't survive, because the immune system will reject it the same way it rejects transplanted organs. Tasmanian Devils hae this problem because they have little genetic diversity, so cells from another animal (including, but not limited to cancer cells) are considered "ok". Humans are more diverse, someone else's cells are hardly ever OK.

      A human already on immunosupressants (or with serious HIV) may be vulnerable - but the vast m

    • Dogs even have some form of STD cancer.
    • by drewsup ( 990717 )

      This is ONLY because wombats have such a low genetic diversity, humans are VERY diverse.

  • by Harlequin80 ( 1671040 ) on Tuesday February 23, 2016 @01:41AM (#51564895)

    There is a nasty cancer which is decimating the population of Tasmanian Devils. It forms lumps and lesions in and around the mouth meaning the animal eventually starves to death. This cancer is spread through contact.

    That said it is believed that a lack of genetic diversity is a major reason in why the healty devils body doesn't recognise the invading cancer cell as coming from another animal. []

    • Good thing that *most* humans don't go around biting the faces of any other random humans they run into.
      • I can also be transmitted through shared food.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          I can also be transmitted through shared food.

          It sucks to accidentally claim to be a cancer...

      • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Tuesday February 23, 2016 @02:58AM (#51565031) Journal
        There is another transmissible cancer, in dogs [] that is an STD. Luckily for the dogs, it is substantially less aggressive than the Tasmanian Devil cancer, and while it spreads reasonably readily(estimates of the length of the cell line vary; but it is definitely the oldest living dog in the world, for certain values of 'dog') the host's immune system typically controls it well enough that it causes only minor symptoms or is asymptomatic.

        There have been a few once-off transmissions of cancer in humans; but no (known) ones under 'natural' conditions. An improperly screened donor organ, followed by immunosuppressants? Sure. Surgeon accidentally cutting himself and tumor cells from the patient getting into the wound? I believe that that has been documented; but no known in-the-wild transmission of actual cancer cells.
        • There have been a few once-off transmissions of cancer in humans; but no (known) ones under 'natural' conditions.

          Indeed, with roughly 7 Billion humans and what you could consider 'intensive' monitoring of much of them, one should expect to see reports of just about everything, rarely.

          A number of people have brought up the Tasmanian Devil - looking it up, it seems that Europeans are about twice [] as diverse as the Tasmanian devil. Polar Bears, Pandas, Gorillas all have much more diversity.

          So it might be a possibility, like with the HeLa cancer cell line - which contaminated and took over quite a few other human cell lin

          • Supposedly, it's lack of genetic diversity due to a near-extinction event that makes the Tasmanian devil so vulnerable to contagious cancer. We might study the American bison, which has the same genetic problem. Circa 1900, the species was down to fewer than one thousand individuals.

        • by pz ( 113803 )

          Um... AIDS is a cancer of the immune system, and is transmissable.

          There's a monkey version of the HIV virus (SIV) that is more tolerated, but also causes leukemia. There's a
          cow version (Bovine Immunodeficiency Virus) []. There is a cat version (Feline IV). []

          Then there's Kaposi's sarcoma [], also caused by a virus.

          And the's a handy list of infectious agents that cause cancer [].

          But perhaps you're talking about the cancer cells themselves causing the transmission, rather than an infectious agent. These are often called

          • Yeah, that was my intention: only cancers that are clonally transmissible, not other types of pathogens that are transmissible in the usual manner of viruses(do any bacteria or eukaryotic parasites do that sort of thing?) and often provoke the development of cancer in their host.

            So far, the one that horrifies me the most is the case [] of the poor bastard who was parasitized by one or more tapeworms; but ultimately died when the tapeworm developed cancer and its cancer spread beyond the tapeworm and aggress
          • Um... AIDS is a cancer of the immune system, and is transmissable.

            No...AIDS just keeps you from being able to fight all those minor cancers that would normally be caught immediately by the immune system. If you're going to be pedantic about not using the technical term of "clonally transmissable cancers", then definitely don't call a viral infection cancer.

            • by pz ( 113803 )

              Yes, you're right. I was mixing my thoughts between HIV and HTLV-I and didn't properly re-read before posting. I sure wish Slashdot supported revisions.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Decimate == reduce by 10%

      • Decimate == reduce by 10%

        Words change their meaning over time, and English borrowings from Latin do not have to stick to the strict original meaning in any case.

        I was reading recently about the possible fate of David Cameron after the EU referendum and whether he would be defenestrated if it went against him. The writer did not mean that Cameron would be literally thrown out of a window to his death.

        • >The writer did not mean that Cameron would be literally thrown out of a window to his death

          I'm pretty sure that is the only way for Cameron to leave office which the British public would consider appropriate.

    • There is also a sexually transmitted cancer that affects dogs, and then there is transmitted blood cancers from transfusions in humans.

      contagious cancer is already a thing.

    • There is a nasty cancer which is decimating the population of Tasmanian Devils.

      Not just decimating - probably wiping them out in the wild.

  • I suppose it should be easy to give cancer to your clone or to your twin...
    Otherwise its going to be fairly unusual... cancers that can evade the immune system, etc... or in immune-compromised hosts.

    • This is believed to be the underlying problem with Tassie Devils. Their genetic diversity is so low that cells from one devil are not recognised as foreign by the others immune system.

  • by Mostly a lurker ( 634878 ) on Tuesday February 23, 2016 @01:55AM (#51564925)

    One puzzle is why evolution has resulted in humans (and the vast majority of other organisms) having a limited lifespan with frequent breeding. Superficially, it would seem more efficient to invest less in the ability to procreate, but permit unlimited healthy lifespans. I have an hypothesis which I think fits with the content of TFA. Frequent breeding allows natural selection to counteract emerging diseases. Where a disease evolves that threatens to wipe out a species, genetic diversity provides an excellent chance that some individuals will be resistant. These resistant individuals can breed to aid species regeneration after being decimated by such a disease.

    • why is this issue a "mystery"? seems pretty obvious that biology/evolution would need to constantly explore/develop better genomes and, given limited resources, it means that every organism needs to die at some point, an expiration date. It facilitates the propagation of successful genomes while also allowing for the evolution of new ones (new solutions).

      • Nature could in theory produce a race of impotent but immortal creatures. If true immortality is possible then that would mean the end of evolution for that species.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      That you think that this idea is revolutionary shows just how little the average person understands evolution. This is well explored as a theme in both science (genetics, evolution, natural selection) and fiction (vampire books come to light but it's not the only genre in which this has been explored).

      Respectfully advise you to spend less time reading forums and more time reading classics. No one else is going to make them responsible for your education.

      • So, if my reading has been inadequate, educate me. I am currently under the (misguided?) impression that the evolutionary origin of senescence is still unknown. A favorite hypothesis has been that early death from all causes in nature drives the need for high fertility and (with few individuals living to old age) makes mutations leading to senescence irrelevant to species survival. Also popular is the notion that fertility is competitive, and it is more important to be good at procreation early in life than

        • by dwywit ( 1109409 )

          Don't sweat it. When an AC uses phrases like "how little you understand x", it's kind of self-explanatory. Mom's basement comes to mind. Your theory is cromulent.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      It's not a mystery why individual organisms have limited lifespans. What is interesting is why it varies the way it does from species to species. What makes whales, turtles, and parakeets better species with long lifespans? What makes mice, cockroaches, and cuttlefish better species with relatively short life spans?

    • by mysidia ( 191772 ) on Tuesday February 23, 2016 @03:29AM (#51565107)

      A simple increase in lifespan won't cause more reproduction, unless it also makes people fertile for a longer number of years, and likely to reproduce more times.

      Then there is the issue that evolution is like a simple hill climbing [] algorithm.

      So evolution can get trapped at a local maxima and does not necessarily see that an increase in lifespan makes you more fit in the long run.

    • Perhaps there are fundamental limitations on the lifespan of an organism which natural selection cannot overcome? There's no reproductive advantage to the gradual falling-apart of joints, bones and brain that characterise old age, there's simply no way in which it could have been avoided without incurring a reproductively-worse cost in another area.

      Cancer will kill every multicellular organism eventually, unless something else kills it first.

    • That doesn't quite correlate with the counter-point - which is looking at what animals live particularly long lives. Galapagos tortoises for example. What seems to differ is those creatures are extremely well armored and living in an area with very little natural predators.

      This matters because living to *reach* the potential lifespan of the body is extremely rare in nature - there's no point in extending that for most creatures as they simply would not live to benefit from it, so you need the rapid breeding

    • One puzzle is why evolution has resulted in humans (and the vast majority of other organisms) having a limited lifespan with frequent breeding. Superficially, it would seem more efficient to invest less in the ability to procreate, but permit unlimited healthy lifespans.

      It's less of a puzzle when we consider evolution hasn't produced an "unkillable" organism. Since all organisms are eventually killed through internal or external causes, increasing the breeding rate is a greater guarantee that a species or its genes will survive. Let's take a hypothetical extreme case, a race of non-infectious vampires that that neither ages nor breeds or otherwise increase their numbers. Eventually the mutants will thin out to extinction unless they're truly immortal, surviving not just vi

    • by Isao ( 153092 )
      Hypothesis: Constrained lifespan and frequent breeding (cycles) provides more opportunity to drive diversity in offspring, leading to a higher rate of natural selection and increases in overall species population. Or we could get an evolutionary biologist on here. This is probably a 101-level question for them.
  • Evolutionary Origins of Cancer --"A 1.6 Billion-Year-Old Accident Waiting to Happen" []
  • Dogs (Score:4, Informative)

    by xlsior ( 524145 ) on Tuesday February 23, 2016 @03:02AM (#51565039) Homepage
    There's also a canine cancer that transmits through sexual contact: []

    "canine transmissible venereal sarcoma (CTVS), sticker tumors and infectious sarcoma is a histiocytic tumor of the external genitalia of the dog and other canines, and is transmitted from animal to animal during mating."
    "The tumor cells are themselves the infectious agents, and the tumors that form are not genetically related to the host dog.[1] Although the genome of a CTVT is derived from a canid (probably a dog, wolf or coyote), it is now essentially living as a unicellular, asexually reproducing (but sexually transmitted) pathogen.[2] Sequence analysis of the genome suggests it diverged from canids over 6,000 years ago; possibly much earlier"
    "believed to be the longest continually propagated cell lineage in the world"
  • by asifyoucare ( 302582 ) on Tuesday February 23, 2016 @04:41AM (#51565231)
    Cervical cancer is often caused by this virus. I'm no oncologist but I believe that quite a few cancers can be caused by viruses. That's not quite the same as a contagious cancer, but close enough to make no practical difference.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      That's a good point. If the cause of a cancer is contagious, then for all intents and purposes it's a contagious cancer.

    • by dwywit ( 1109409 )

      This is what I don't understand. Cancer develops, becomes a life-threatening/metastatic tumour because one or more mutated cells have managed to avoid or fool numerous detection and termination processes in a particular individual. I may be more likely to develop a cancer of a particular type because a relative has had it - but that implies a susceptibility because of very similar DNA (for want of a better term - and my GP tells me that the non-hodgkins lymphoma that killed my mother is NOT one of the genet

    • No, the contagious cancer is genetically related to each other instance. Cancers generated via virus in two different individuals will be as distantly related as the individuals.
  • There was a Russian scientist who claimed all cancers were caused by viruses, unfortunately I can't find the link on Ars and I'm lazy at this hour. But what if all cancers do come from a virus type that we don't have the ability to detect yet (and we aren't trying to)? It's fascinating to think about, but then look at AIDs, we've know the virus that causes it for decades and still can't cure it (although some will state it's a manageable illness now).
    • Really curious: does he claim that lung cancer or liver cancer are [mainly] caused by viruses?

    • Like Simoncini's claim that cancer are all caused by fungus (the reason he thinks that are trivially laughable). Fact is, that we know that some type of cancer are caused by virus others are documented to be by carcinogene substance. Exposing a mice to benzene or formaldehyde does not suddenly make a virus spontaneously appear and be missed by generation of scientist which think carcinogene exists. So claima s such you cited seem to belong to the crank category. And yes we have the ability to detect even ve
    • Cancer is the fountain of youth. Your cells are programmed to reproduce up to a certain point, stop reproducing, serve a function, then die. Cancer is what you get when that programming goes awry and the cell doesn't stop reproducing. Sometimes, even the mechanism which causes cell line to die after a few reproductions stops working, and the cancerous cell line can live forever [].

      While the change could be triggered by a virus, it's probably not necessary. Every cell already contains the mechanism by wh
  • This could account for the spread of conservatism in the body politic of many Western countries. :-)

  • There is also the Clam. [] This is an excelent podcast on virology.
    Or for those more into the heavier stuff: []

  • []

    I'm slightly surprised that the notion of contagious cancer is being presented as something new. I've known about cats and FeLV for decades and I'm not exactly a scientist, epidemiologist or medical researcher.

  • Between 1954 and 1963, close to 98 million Americans received polio vaccinations contaminated with a carcinogenic monkey virus, now known as SV40. []

    It may sound like the stuff of conspiracy buffs, but it is in fact a true story. Doctors had to go in front of congress and testify to get the contaminated vaccines pulled.

    I had a brother in the age range to have gotten this polio vaccine, and he died from a brain tumor in his early 50s. Anecdotal, yes. Dead, yes.

  • Nice to know the science is finally catching up....

    We know the HPV triggers cancer. We know that the Tasmanian Devils are suffering from it. I suspect that some brain cancers are in fact contagious. Had a friend working on a research team on brain cancer, who then contracted it.

    • It would be highly unlikely that exogenous cancer cells could reach the brain of a second individual. Far more likely is that the laboratory reagents he was working with gave him cancer.
  • by zerofoo ( 262795 ) on Tuesday February 23, 2016 @10:49AM (#51566773)

    I read a while back that a surgeon accidentally got cancer from one of his surgical patients: []

    So, it appears that cancer can move between hosts in a mechanical fashion.

    • I read a while back that a surgeon accidentally got cancer from one of his surgical patients: []

      So, it appears that cancer can move between hosts in a mechanical fashion.

      I found a nastier one a while back: guy has tapeworm, tapeworm has cancer, tapeworm spreads its cancer throughout the guy's body as it wriggles around.
      Here's the story []. One of the interesting things was that the tapeworm tumors had differently-sized cells, so they were easy to differentiate from the host's cells. Now, that's not exactly cancer being transmitted, insofar as it wasn't his cells that were turning cancerous, but they were growing/multiplying and helped cause his death. It's like being infect

  • Cancers cause crazy replication of the victims own cells. The defenses we have against most diseases are of the form "Recognize something that isn't me and kill it!" - but cancer cells are pretty much identical to regular cells - which is why curing cancer is so hard.

    But the idea of someone else's cancer cell getting into my body and running amok isn't such a big deal because their cells are not recognized as "me" - and my regular defenses should attack them just like a bacterial infection - and just like

  • Be Afraid! You need the government to protect you!
  • Feline leukemia virus is certainly contagious among cats, so there's no reason to believe that other viruses can't transmit cancer as well.
  • Boosting the immune system to fight cancer;

The absent ones are always at fault.