A shot (or three) to prevent breast cancer?

Once again, the dramatic claims reported recently in the news regarding breast cancer gave only a snippet of the real story.  This time, news reports announced the discovery of Human Papilloma Virus  in human breast cancer tissue. This report garnered quite a bit of attention.  Not only because finding a virus with a role in breast cancer opens up the possibility of a vaccine for breast cancer, but because we’ve already got the vaccine. The HPV vaccine is now given to pre-teen to teenage girls, in a series of three shots, to prevent some forms of cervical cancer.

It does make sense that HPV could have a role in breast cancer.  High risk strains of the virus are able to “oncogenically transform” normal cells, or in other words, cause cancer.   But is the theoretical risk real?  Do breast tumors contain HPV, and if so, what role do they play?

The recent news reports referred to research from Australian researchers that was published in the British Journal of Cancer.  The researchers found HPV in two out of eight breast cancer cell lines.  They then looked at breast tissue specimens and found HPV in 5 out of 13 DCIS breast cancer specimens; 3 out of 13 IDC breast cancer specimens; and in 3 out of 17 normal breast tissue specimens.  The authors conclude that the proportion of HPV in cancerous tissue is higher, and that the presence of HPV in some normal tissue is consistent with the requirement for HPV infection in the breast tissue before HPV-induced cancer transformation can occur.

But was this really a new discovery?  Turns out, no, not really.  Scores of research studies have been looking for many years at not only HPV and breast cancer, but other viruses as well, including the Epstein Barr Virus.  Studies around the globe have found HPV, Epstein Barr, and other viruses, in varying amounts in breast cancer tissue.  Other studies have failed to verify the same results, making the ideas controversial.  But the research may be picking up steam.  What IS news is that the laboratory methods used to identify viruses in breast tumors have recently advanced and are considered more reliable.

So where do things stand now?

There is “substantial, though not conclusive” evidence that viruses, including HPV and Epstein Barr may be involved in causing some breast cancers,  according to a review on the topic published this year in the Journal of Cancer Research and Clinical Oncology.  The exact role of the viruses is not clear, but it appears that the viruses are responsible for causing one of the steps in a series of steps required for cancer development, according to the authors.

I’m encouraged by this research, and hope to see more.  So much of the research into finding a cause of breast cancer and potential preventive strategies seems like searching for a needle in a haystack.  But the possibility of a virus having some role, and the possibility of vaccines for the disease,  seems well worth continued research efforts.

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