Clonally transmissible cancer

A transmissible cancer is a cancer cell or cluster of cancer cells that can be transferred between individuals without the involvement of an infectious agent, such as an oncovirus.[1][2] Transmission of cancer between humans is rare.[2]


In humans, a significant fraction of Kaposi's sarcoma occurring after transplantation may be due to tumorous outgrowth of donor cells.[3] Although Kaposi's sarcoma is caused by a virus (Kaposi's sarcoma-associated herpesvirus), in these cases, it appears likely that transmission of virus-infected tumor cells—rather than the free virus—caused tumors in the transplant recipients.[2]

In 2007, 4 people received different organ transplants (liver, both lungs and kidneys) from a 53-year-old woman who had recently died from intracranial bleeding. Before transplantation, the organ donor was deemed to have no signs of cancer upon medical examination. Later, the organ recipients developed metastatic breast cancer from the organs and 3 of them died from the cancer between 2009–2017.[4]

In 2014, a case of parasite-to-host cancer transmission occurred in a 41-year-old man in Colombia with a compromised immune system due to HIV. The man's tumor cells were shown to have originated from the dwarf tapeworm, Hymenolepis nana.[5] In 1990s, an undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcoma was transmitted from a patient to a surgeon when he injured his hand during an operation – within 5 months a tumor developed to the hand. The tumor was removed.[6] In 1986, a laboratory worker accidentally bruised herself with the needles she was using to inject colonic cancer cells into mice. She developed a small tumor on her hand in 2 weeks.[7]

Other animals

Contagious cancers are known to occur in dogs, Tasmanian devils, Syrian hamsters, and some marine bivalves including soft-shell clams. These cancers have a relatively stable genome as they are transmitted.[8] Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) and canine transmissible venereal tumor (CTVT) are the only naturally occurring clonally transmissible cancers uncovered by humans so far.[9]

Clonally transmissible cancer, caused by a clone of malignant cells rather than a virus,[10] is an extremely rare disease modality,[11] with few transmissible cancers being known[1] Animals that have undergone population bottlenecks may be at greater risks of contracting transmissible cancers.[12] Because of their transmission, it was initially thought that these diseases were caused by the transfer of oncoviruses, in the manner of cervical cancer caused by human papillomavirus.[2] However, canine transmissible venereal tumor mutes the expression of the immune response, whereas the Syrian hamster disease spreads due to lack of genetic diversity.[13]

Canine transmissible venereal tumor

Canine transmissible venereal tumor (CTVT) is sexually transmitted cancer in dogs. It was first described medically by a veterinary practitioner in London in 1810.[14] It was experimentally transplanted between dogs in 1876 by M. A. Novinsky (1841–1914). A single malignant clone of CTVT cells has colonized dogs worldwide, representing the oldest known malignant cell line in continuous propagation,[15] a fact that was uncovered in 2006. Researchers deducted that the CTVT went through 2 million mutations to reach its actual state, and inferred it started to develop in ancient dog species 11 000 years ago.[14]

Contagious reticulum cell sarcoma

Contagious reticulum cell sarcoma of the Syrian hamster[16] can be transmitted from one Syrian hamster to another by means of the bite of the mosquito Aedes aegypti.[17]

Devil facial tumour disease

Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) is a transmissible parasitic cancer in the Tasmanian devil.[18] Since its discovery in 1996, DFTD has spread and infected 4/5 of all Tasmanian devils and threatens them with extinction. A new DFTD tumor-type cancer was recently uncovered on 5 Tasmanian devils (DFT2), histologically different from DFT1, leading researchers to believe that the Tasmanian devil "is particularly prone to the emergence of transmissible cancers".[14]

Soft-shell clams

Soft-shell clams, Mya arenaria, have been found to be vulnerable to a transmissible neoplasm of the hemolymphatic system — effectively, leukemia.[19][20] The cells have infected clam beds hundreds of miles from each other, making this clonally transmissible cancer the only one that does not require contact for transmission.[14]

Horizontally transmitted cancers

Horizontally transmitted cancers have also been discovered in three other species of marine bivalves: bay mussels (Mytilus trossulus), common cockles (Cerastoderma edule) and golden carpet shell clams (Polititapes aureus). The golden carpet shell clam cancer was found to have been transmitted from another species, the pullet carpet shell (Venerupis corrugata).[21][22]

See also


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  2. Welsh JS (2011). "Contagious cancer". The Oncologist. 16 (1): 1–4. doi:10.1634/theoncologist.2010-0301. PMC 3228048. PMID 21212437.
  3. Luppi M, et al. (2003). "Post-transplant Kaposi sarcoma originates from the seeding of donor-derived progenitors". Nature Medicine. 9 (5): 554–561. doi:10.1038/nm862. PMID 12692543.
  4. Matser Y, et al. (2018). "Transmission of breast cancer by a single multiorgan donor to 4 transplant recipients". American Journal of Transplantation. 18 (7): 1810–1814. doi:10.1111/ajt.14766. ISSN 1600-6135. PMID 29633548.
  5. Muehlenbachs A, et al. (2015). "Malignant transformation of Hymenolepis nana in a human host". The New England Journal of Medicine. 373 (19): 1845–1852. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1505892. ISSN 1533-4406. PMID 26535513.
  6. Seidl C, et al. (1996). "Genetic analysis of a sarcoma accidentally transplanted from a patient to a surgeon". New England Journal of Medicine. 335 (20): 1494–1497. doi:10.1056/NEJM199611143352004. PMID 8890100.
  7. Gugel EL, Sanders ME (1986). "Needle-stick transmission of human colonic adenocarcinoma". New England Journal of Medicine. 315 (23): 1487–1487. doi:10.1056/NEJM198612043152314. ISSN 0028-4793.
  8. Weiss RA, et al. (2006). "A sexually transmitted parasitic cancer". Retrovirology. 3 (Supplement 1): S92. doi:10.1186/1742-4690-3-S1-S92.
  9. Murchison EP (2008). "Clonally transmissible cancers in dogs and Tasmanian devils". Oncogene. 27 Suppl 2: S19–30. doi:10.1038/onc.2009.350. ISSN 1476-5594. PMID 19956175.
  10. Rebbeck CA, et al. (2009). "Origins and evolution of a transmissible cancer". Evolution. 63 (9): 2340–9. doi:10.1111/j.1558-5646.2009.00724.x. PMID 19453727.
  11. Strakova A, Murchison EP (2015). "The cancer which survived: insights from the genome of an 11000 year-old cancer" (PDF). Current Opinion in Genetics & Development. 30: 49–55. doi:10.1016/j.gde.2015.03.005. PMID 25867244.
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  13. Siddle HV, et al. (2007). "Transmission of a fatal clonal tumor by biting occurs due to depleted MHC diversity in a threatened carnivorous marsupial". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 104 (41): 16221–6. doi:10.1073/pnas.0704580104. PMC 1999395. PMID 17911263.
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  19. Yong, Ed (2015-04-09). "Selfish shellfish cells cause contagious clam cancer". National Geographic. Archived from the original on 2015-09-05. Retrieved 2015-04-10.
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