A viral aetiology for breast cancer: time to re-examine the postulate

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Despite decades of research, no aetiologic factor(s) for human breast cancer has been identified and the search for a causal agent has all but been abandoned during the past thirty years. Over 60 years ago, it was demonstrated that breast tumours in mice are caused by an oncornavirus, murine mammary tumour virus (MMTV). Whilst many at that time postulated a similar virus might be the causative agent of human breast cancer, genetic evidence was difficult to obtain primarily because of the occurrence of endogenous human retrovirus (HER) sequences within the human genome that share extensive regions of nucleotide homology with MMTV. Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in the possibility that a significant proportion of human breast cancers may be caused by viral infections. Two candidate viruses have been proposed, a human retroviral analogue of MMTV (which differs significantly in sequence and characteristics from HERs) and, the Epstein-Barr virus (gamma-herpes virus). These two viruses have been reported to occur in up to 37 and 50% of breast cancer cases, respectively. Here we present the background to the infectious hypothesis for the aetiology of breast cancer and review recent findings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2-13
Number of pages12
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2004


  • Breast Neoplasms/etiology
  • DNA, Viral/analysis
  • Female
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human/isolation & purification
  • Humans
  • Mammary Tumor Virus, Mouse/genetics
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Virus Integration


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