Study Ties Virus to Breast Cancer

French scientists are now suggesting that a run-of-the-mill virus may have a hand in some cases of breast cancer.

The new study, published in the Aug. 18, 1999, issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) points to the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) in the development of certain malignant breast tumors. EBV is a herpes virus most commonly known for causing mononucleosis, a mild illness that typically affects teenagers and young adults.

Scientists are finding increasing evidence that infections play an important role in cancer. Human papillomavirus, which causes genital warts, has long been known to increase a woman’s risk of cervical cancer. And earlier this month, English researchers found clues to support the hypothesis that exposure to infection heightens the risk of childhood leukemia.

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers among women in industrialized countries. Established risk factors include family history of breast cancer, early onset of menstruation, late age of first full-term pregnancy, and post-menopausal obesity. Some scientists believe that EBV may one day make this list. In the latest study, French researchers from the Institute Gustav Roussy analyzed malignant tissue from 100 breast cancer patients. EBV was found in approximately half of these specimens. The virus was detected more often in the most aggressive tumors. And, in 4 out of 5 cases where the cancer had spread to patient’s lymph nodes, EBV was present.

To determine if the virus was present outside breast tumors, the researchers also examined healthy tissue near the tumors in 30 of the patients. EBV was detected in only 10 percent of these samples.

An editorial following the JNCI report notes that while previous studies corroborate the latest finding, at least five studies fail to support the association between breast cancer and EBV. One reason for the equivocal data may be the use of tests in some studies that were not sensitive enough to detect the virus.

“Although more data are needed, it seems likely at this time that EBV is frequently association with multiple types of … breast cancer,” wrote editorial authors Dr. Ian Magrath and Dr. Kishor Bhatia of the National Cancer Institute.

The association of EBV with cancer is not new. The virus was discovered 35 years ago in African Burkitt’s lymphoma and has since been linked to numerous other types of cancer. The French work adds to the growing body of evidence tying EBV to breast tumors.

“I think this is very intriguing,” said Dr. Martin Kast, a cancer expert at Loyola University. “It is another virus linked to human cancer.”

But Dr. John Morgan, Cancer Epidemiologist at the California Cancer Registry has reservations about the report. “The finding is interesting,” said Dr. Morgan, “but it needs to be confirmed before assuming that it’s important.”

According to Drs. Magrath and Bhatia, questions remain about whether EBV really causes breast cancer, or it simply infects tumor cells that already exist.

“The Epstein-Barr virus is common,” explained Dr. Morgan, in an interview with the American Council on Science and Health. “Incorporation of EBV into the DNA of malignant breast cancer may be a consequence of the unregulated cell growth of cancer, rather than a cause of the disease.”

The editorial writers suggest that if a causal relationship is established, an EBV vaccine might prove a novel way to prevent some breast cancers.

Yet Dr. Morgan emphasized that public health efforts should remain focused on the lifestyle factors that have already been identified to predict breast cancer risk. “Regardless of whether this finding turns out to be important, there may be a place for an EBV vaccine.” he said. “But we need to increase our efforts to identify viable interventions for breast cancer based on what we already know.”

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