Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Pink Virus

A number of risk factors make one person more likely to develop breast cancer than another person. Being female, for instance, is a biggie. Age. Family history. Use of artificial hormones. Obesity. Some people will have few or none of the risk factors and still contract the disease, although their chances of getting it are lower. Some people will have many of the risk factors and never develop the disease.

Cancer results when a mutated gene proliferates. But what causes that mutation to occur in the first place? I have written before about viruses that are known to cause cancers. If we knew that some breast cancers were caused by a virus, there would be the potential for vaccine development and anti-viral treatments.

Dr Kathleen Ruddy, founder and president of the Breast Health and Healing Foundation, was kind enough to give me a copy of her book, The Pink Virus: Does a Virus Cause Breast Cancer in Women? An intriguing tome, which I highly recommend for people interested in this topic. Ruddy provides a primer on viruses and cancer before discussing specific research into a breast cancer virus, in accessible language with practical examples. The book is well-tuned for both a professional and lay audience.

Dr Ruddy has been a breast cancer surgeon for 15+ years. She notes that in her field the emphasis has been on breast cancer treatment and cure, with little attention to the primary cause of the disease. In fact, she writes that less than 2% of the funding for breast cancer research goes to work on breast cancer’s cause. Is breast cancer preventable? A person could work to reduce some risk factors, but not all. And what of the people without risk factors? Something else must be at work.

The research is compelling, and disturbing, for the line of thinking begins in the 1930s, yet this research is absent from most textbooks on breast cancer. Ruddy notes that in the 1930s, a researcher discovered that baby mice, when fed milk from a mouse with breast cancer, would also develop breast cancer. He called this the “milk-agent.” The milk-agent was later found to be a virus, mouse mammary tumor virus (MMTV). In the late 1960s, another researcher discovered particles similar to MMTV in human breast milk, particles indicative of a related virus. The following decade, more researchers discovered positive reactions to MMTV in cancerous breast tissue but not in benign breast tissue. In the 1980s, researchers found women with breast cancer were more likely than women without breast cancer to have evidence of MMTV in their blood. In 1988, researchers found that 97% of the breast cancer patients studied showed evidence of a retrovirus, further implicating MMTV. In 1996, researchers hypothesized that a significant number of human breast cancers were associated with viral sequences similar to MMTV, which may in fact be a human mammary tumor virus (HMTV). In 2000, researchers noted breast cancer incidence was positively correlated with mus comesticus (house mice).

Ruddy provides an extensive reference list for anyone interested in reading the scientific literature.

More than 1.3 million women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. Nearly half a million women will die from breast cancer this year. The line of research into a HMTV is compelling, and should be supported.