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Oncologist. 2011;16(1):1-4. doi: 10.1634/theoncologist.2010-0301. Epub 2011 Jan 6.

Contagious cancer.

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  • 1Departments of Radiology and Neurosurgery, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center-Shreveport, Shreveport, Louisiana 71130, USA.


Although cancer can on occasion be caused by infectious agents such as specific bacteria, parasites, and viruses, it is not generally considered a transmissible disease. In rare circumstances, however, direct communication from one host to another has been documented. The Tasmanian devil is now threatened with extinction in the wild because of a fatal transmissible cancer, devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). Another example is canine transmissible venereal tumor (CTVT or Sticker's sarcoma) in dogs. There is a vast difference in prognosis between these two conditions. DFTD is often fatal within 6 months, whereas most cases of CTVT are eventually rejected by the host dog, who then is conferred lifelong immunity. In man, only scattered case reports exist about such communicable cancers, most often in the setting of organ or hematopoietic stem cell transplants and cancers arising during pregnancy that are transmitted to the fetus. In about one third of cases, transplant recipients develop cancers from donor organs from individuals who were found to harbor malignancies after the transplantation. The fact that two thirds of the time cancer does not develop, along with the fact that cancer very rarely is transmitted from person to person, supports the notion that natural immunity prevents such cancers from taking hold in man. These observations might hold invaluable clues to the immunobiology and possible immunotherapy of cancer.

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