In 2011, Hugo Chavez alleged that he was the victim of an assassination plot ... that unnamed US agents had infected him with a transmissible cancer. Scientifically speaking, that's highly unlikely. But what's interesting is that the idea of contagious cancer isn't totally outside the realm of reality. Transmissible cancers do exist, just not in any primate species. At Scientific American, Marissa Fessenden interviews a geneticist about the contagious cancers that affect dogs and Tasmanian devils.

37 Responses to “Cancer as a contagious disease”

  1. rogerwilco1 says:

    Scientifically speaking this is entirely possible, for example using the fungus Aflatoxin B1.

  2. shutz says:

    What about the Human Papilloma Virus (or HPV) ?

    That’s a viral STD that can cause cancer (according to Wikipedia, only in a small number of cases, but still…)

    Though I doubt that’s how Chavez got his cancer…  if it is, then his story just got a lot more interesting.

  3. Byron33196 says:

    But has anyone actually attempted to infect another human with HeLa cells?  If you were going to infect someone with cancer, these would seem to be the cancer cells you would do it with/

    • DeanCutlet says:

      This is my theory too. HeLa cells are are so vibrant they contaminate other supposedly isolated cultures (source.. NPR.. or somewhere). Since HeLa is used everywhere for medical experimentation, it isn’t a stretch to think that HeLa has infected living cultures (our own bodies) too.

      Has anyone found a genetic match to HeLa to prevalent cancers found in the US population? That would be an test worth doing.

      • Cultures in test tubes don’t have immune systems. People do, and foreign cells are not tolerated very well.

        • AnthonyC says:

          Cells that have been grown in the lab for decades change in ways that no natural cancers do. They lose some of the identifying markers that the immune systems would normally use to detect them as foreign, for example, and grow much faster than any naturally occurring cancel.

          Remember, the immune system always fights cancers. You almost certainly have a few cancerous or precancerous cells in your body here and there throughout your life, but they almost get destroyed. Nevertheless, cancer is a leading cause of death, because the immune system isn’t perfect.

          • Jerril says:

            They lose some of the identifying markers that the immune systems would normally use to detect them as foreign,

            They loose all parts of blood type? Citation please? I’d like to read more on that.

            The reason why contagious cancers work in Tasmanian Devils is because the Devils are so highly inbred that any random two Devils have nearly identical immune systems.

            I don’t know about the dog tumour case.

          • AnthonyC says:

            Not blood type AFAIK, but definitely many of the MHC proteins at least (I tested that myself when I worked in an immunology lab, not with HeLa cells but with a related line). It’s evolution at it’s most basic – freed from the need to identify itself to an immune system, the cells that shed unnecessary proteins will divide faster. Repeat for decades.

    • They’d be rejected by the immune system, just like if you tried to transplant Henrietta Lacks’ kidney into someone without providing immuno-suppressant meds.

  4. Gus says:

    I thought he claimed that the US (the Imperialists as he called them) GAVE him cancer, not specifically TRANSMITTED cancer.  I think he was implying they fed/injected something that caused cancer to develop.

    I do not think that that’ s what happened, but it was a bad string of luck that something like 4 or 5 presidents in South America developed cancer in the span of a few years that did make him (more) suspicious.

    • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

      You can’t be El Presidente without the Cigar. That’s the problem.

      • chaopoiesis says:

        The NY Times obit outed El Pres as a closet cigarette smoker. Of course that has nothing to do with carcinogenesis.

    • liquidstar says:

       I have to admit to wondering if Chavez was made ill.   I didn’t even know that he claimed this; and given the political situation, it is plausible.  There are historical precedents for (the CIA) being allowed to ‘maybe’ kill national leaders (as well as other diplomats and key political people).  Basically, they are exposed in a way that only has a possibility of killing them, such as that provided by a radioactive substance.  If they die, bonus.  If not, laws against deliberate assassinations are upheld.  Of course this was during the relatively honest, moral climate of the cold war.

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        Chavez wasn’t important enough to be the target of a plot like that.

        • Ito Kagehisa says:

          The USA has never been real shy about propping up the petrodollar, and Hugo Chavez and Saddam Hussein were at one time the two biggest threats to maintaining the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency.  The Bush administration apparently noticed this, and when the “revolution” in Venezuela didn’t really work out, I doubt they would have shied away from some hare-brained plot involving polonium or whatever.

          The current threats to the petrodollar are of course Iran and Russia, but China’s already halfway done dumping their dollars so it’s a moot point anymore.  Chavez’s importance has waned and the petrodollar is doomed.

          It’s not unlikely Chavez was purposely exposed to carcinogens by opposing players, but it’s also not unlikely he would have developed cancer anyway.  It’s not exactly uncommon.

    • Cancer is a common disease, especially among older people. Chavez’ cancer apparently was in his pelvis or nearby. That suggests colon, testicular, or prostate cancer. Frank Zappa died at 52 of prostate cancer, no conspiracy theories required.

      Also: I’m guessing maybe there’s a fair amount of pollution in Latin American cities, which could include carcinogenic particulates. While in the military Chavez could have been exposed to all kinds of nasty weapon-cleaning fluids and whatnot.

      It’s cancer. Lots of people get it. It’s not exactly a rare polonium isotope.

  5. Dan Hibiki says:

    such a thing does indeed exist, but thankfully only in animals… for now:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parasitic_cancer

  6. millie fink says:

    I’ve been waiting to hear the results of Arafat’s exhumation. There certainly are ways to induce cancer in humans, if not to directly transmit it. I wonder which exactly Chavez said.

  7. stevecaplan says:

    As a physician and dermatologist, I can easily name two forms of infectious cancer:  human papilloma virus (strains of which are causative of squamous cell carcinoma) and merkle cell virus, recently (over the past few years) shown to be causative of merkle cell carcinoma, a very deadly form of skin cancer.

    • Preston Sturges says:

      The dog and tasmanian devil cancers are actual tumor clones whose cells can directly colonize new hosts. I believe scientists were looking for a canine virus when they discovered the tumors were clones.  Transmission is by sex or bites – the devils bite each like crazy.

    • Jerril says:

       As noted, there’s a huge gulf between “An infection that can trigger cancerous reactions” and “cancerous human cells from another human breaking off their original host and implanting themselves in your body”. The second is what we’re talking about. Humans thankfully don’t have that (yet).

      And yes, it gives me the horrors so bad I suddenly turn into Beeker from the Muppet Show and have a fit of the screaming meemees every time I think about it.

  8. redesigned says:

    If you want to read an interesting book on contagious cancers in humans that will really make you think, check out the book Dr. Mary’s Monkey.  It is a gem of a conspiracy theory book and frighteningly plausible. :-)

  9. peregrinus says:

    Don’t forget Bob Marley’s toe.  And the CIA.  They’ve been doing this for quite some time

  10. mgatch says:

     HPV can cause genital, anal and throat cancers in males. Pretty rare, and usually associated with compromised immune function; but, no cervix is required.

  11. “A malignant fibrous histiocytoma was contracted from a patient by a surgeon when he injured his hand during an operation.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clonally_transmissible_cancer#Instances_of_transmission_of_human_cancer

    “No transmissible cancer is known in humans, although there are several documented ways in which cancer cells have been transmitted between people.”

    - http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/news/2010/features/wtx058957.htm

    I think the article really means “no cancer which regularly is transmitted from one host to another is known in humans” and “but it does happen infrequently as one off accidents”

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