Question of the Week Podcast

Question of the Week episode

Mon, 19th Mar 2012

Can you Catch Cancer?

Tasmanian Devil (c) Wayne McLean

Could you get cancer from someone else? Tasmanian devils can catch cancer transmitted through biting. Are there instances of cancers being transmitted this way in humans?  Could you catch cancer through a blood transfusion?  Plus we ask, why is there not an upper absolute in the temperature scale......

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  • Can you catch cancer?

    Could you get cancer from someone else? I have heard that sometimes cancer can spread to multiple individuals. In particular, tasmanian devils seem to be suffering from a form of cancer that is transmitted through biting. Are there instances of cancers being transmitted th...



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Genital Warts is a highly communicable disease, while not actually transmitting cancer, it greatly increases the cervical cancer risk in women.  Fortunately there is now a good HPV vaccine.  Several other viruses are also considered Oncoviruses, and can increase the risk of cancer.  A couple of types of bacteria have also been associated with cancer.

Theoretically one could transmit metastatic cancer with blood transfusions, but the risk is exceptionally low in "healthy" recipients.  Blood donors are excluded if they have a history of cancer, and your body would naturally fight the invading cells as "foreign". 

Here is an abstract that indicates no increased risk of developing cancer of recipients of blood donations from "pre-cancerous" patients.

Organ transplants, are a much greater risk for transmitting cancer for two reasons.  First of all, the organs are matched to the recipient with a much greater antigen match than would otherwise be used with a blood donation.  And, to prevent organ rejection, the patients are given immune system suppressants which would also limit the body's ability to fight the invading foreign tissue.

Identical twins, of course, would have the same cancer risks of developing new cancers, but as you mentioned, would have difficulties recognizing the tissue from the other as being "foreign".

The cancer in the Tasmanian Devils is considered to be Clonally Transmissible Cancer.  There is no known wild clonally transmissible  cell line in humans, although a few individual cases of transmission have been documented.  The wikipedia article suggests that there is a clonally transmissible cancer in dogs and hamsters.

I presume Tasmanian devils are at greater risk than humans for cancer propagation due to their nipping and biting, and presumably drawing blood in ordinary social interactions.  This is also an interesting note about the Tasmanian Cancer, and relative gene stability, although there are apparently a few different cell lines now.

Since humans are less likely to bite and draw blood, perhaps it offers some amount of protection, although one could imagine a kissing cancer, or perhaps sexual transmission as occurs with dogs. CliffordK, Sun, 11th Mar 2012

i heard somewhere that people long ago believed cancer was contagious-it was thought to be an old wives tail but now we're finding out viruses are the trigger in many cases.My grandmother died from non hodgekins lymphoma and i recently read that anyone who has had a serious staph infection (of which i remember her being hospitalized for)has a high chance of getting this cancer-so i guess bacteria could also be carcinogens (?) if you could call them that. jazzderry, Tue, 13th Mar 2012

My wife has been a cancer nurse for 25 years. She was bitten by a patient on her forearm about 15 years ago. About 5 years ago she developed an ugly looking mole directly on the scar from the bite. It was tested and was confirmed as melanoma cancer. It was removed and lymph node testing was done and all was negative. I truly doubt if this was coincidental as the cancer formed on the direct site of the bite John, Thu, 21st Mar 2013

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