Scope 48 - Is cancer contagious?

30 July 2012, Cancer

No, cancer is not contagious in humans. Yet, the strategies used by our immune system to eradicate germs have the potential to be just as effective in treating cancer.

Cancer is not a germ - you cannot ‘catch’ cancer like you would the common cold. Although certain viruses can cause cancer in humans, such as the human papillomavirus (cervical cancer), these diseases are spread via the viruses, not the cancer cells themselves.

Cancer cells from one person are generally unable to live in the body of another person because the healthy person’s immune system recognises and destroys them, just as it would a virus. Clearly however, the immune system’s normal ability to fight cancer is limited, because many people with healthy immune systems still develop cancer.

An early 20th century surgeon, Dr William Coley, is often credited with first recognising the potential of the immune system for treating cancer. He showed that he could control the growth of some tumours by injecting his patients with killed bacterial infusions (called Coley’s Toxins) to stimulate an immune response. Although this was a rather crude approach to cancer treatment, the basic premise of cancer immunotherapy remains the same – to help the immune system recognise cancer cells and strengthen its response so that it will destroy them.

Over half of the scientists at the Malaghan Institute are involved in research programmes devoted to unleashing the full cancer-fighting potential of the immune systems of cancer patients, some of which we spoke about in Scope 47. The primary focus of our cancer research is the development of a cancer vaccine and we have brought together the best expertise in New Zealand to achieve this goal. In this issue of Scope we share what we have achieved so far.

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