Bovine viruses linked to bowel cancer

Amit Mitra Hyderabad | Updated on February 19, 2014 Published on February 19, 2014

Consumers of beef are said to be at great risk, according to the study

Can some cow viruses cause colorectal (or bowel) cancer? This type of cancer has been on the rise in high beef consuming countries, especially undercooked beef.

Scientists say it is possible that these bovine viruses could survive mild cooking and then cause a cancerous effect on the human gut.

Renowned German virologist Herald Zur Hausen, who won the Nobel Prize in 2008 for establishing a link between human papilloma virus (HPV) and cervical cancer, is currently working on the possible link between cattle virus and bowel cancer. If established, the research could lead to new drugs for prevention and treatment of bowel cancer, the third most frequent cancer worldwide.

Shot in the arm

Hausen’s work on HPV virus led to the launch of the first preventive HPV virus, marketed by Merck & Co, under the trade name Gardasil and approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2006. The next year, another HPV vaccine Cervarix brought out by GlaxoSmithKline was licensed in Australia and later approved for use in the US in 2009.

The vaccine is now approved in over 100 countries and integrated into the immunisation programme of over 40 countries.

Hausen, who was in the city to deliver a lecture at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology here, said his group has been able to isolate 10 different viruses from the blood of certain cattle breed, which could have a link to the rise in bowel cancer. “We are particularly studying some viruses in the zebu bovine species. We have analysed more than 130 blood samples from this species in different regions,” he said.

Known carriers

The zebu cattle has its origin in South Asia and is characterised by a hump and drooping ears. Regions with high beef consumption, particularly undercooked beef which is a delicacy in countries like Japan and Korea, has greater incidence of bowel cancer. The Nobel Laureate said establishing a link between the viruses and cancer would take a long time. “We are now working on establishing whether these virus can infect human cells and if so how,” he points out.

But, Hausen, who led the group that identified two most frequent HPV types in cervical cancer tumors, is unhappy with the rate of vaccination against this cancer in many of the countries, including Germany.

“It should be taken up globally on a larger scale and both boys and girls should be immunised. I hope that the World Health Organisation also take up the campaign,” he says.

He is happy that with the intervention of the Global alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, the cost of the vaccine has come down substantially.

Published on February 19, 2014
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