‘Kissing disease’ virus may raise risk of breast cancer

August 4, 2016 Providence Health Team

One of the most common viruses in the world may accelerate the development of malignant breast cancer, a new study has found.

Epstein-Barr virus, best known for causing infectious mononucleosis, or the “kissing disease” because it can be passed by the exchange of saliva, can alter the metabolism of breast cells in some people, researchers concluded.

It’s been estimated that about 90 percent of the world’s population is or has been infected by the Epstein-Barr virus, also called human herpesvirus 4. Some people develop full-blown mononucleosis, but most show no ill effects from the infection.

“Everyone gets mono at one point in their lives,” lead researcher Gerburg Wulf, M.D., told the Boston Herald. “But a certain fraction who get mono will, at some point in their lives, get cancer related to this virus.”

While there is no vaccine against Epstein-Barr virus, the researchers suggested that the development of such a vaccine “might have a potentially large public health impact” because it would reduce the number of cases of malignant breast cancer.

Exploring the link between the virus and breast cancer

Scientists have long known that Epstein-Barr was linked to certain cancers, including breast cancer. But they didn’t understand the role the virus played in the cancers’ development.

In the study led by Dr. Wulf, researchers implanted in mice breast cells that had bonded to the Epstein-Barr virus. They found that the virus lowered the threshold for transformation into a particularly aggressive form of cancer.

Epstein-Barr infection may leave genetic scars and change the metabolism of certain breast cells, researchers said.

"While these are subtle changes, they may, decades later, facilitate breast cancer formation," Dr. Wulf said in a prepared statement.

Learn more about the virus and the study

Epstein-Barr virus can be difficult to diagnose because its symptoms are similar to other diseases. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says virus symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Inflamed throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Enlarged spleen
  • Swollen liver
  • Rash

Many people are infected in childhood and often show no symptoms, the agency said. For a definitive diagnosis, health care providers must check for antibodies in a sample of blood.

People pass along the virus through bodily fluids such as saliva, semen and blood. Infection can also pass to a person who drinks from a still-moist glass or uses a toothbrush used by an infected person.

The study was published in the journal eBioMedicine.

You can read the article “Epstein-Barr Virus and Infectious Mononucleosis” at the CDC site.

If you have concerns about the virus, talk to your health care provider. He or she may suggest a blood test.  If you’d like to speak with a Providence provider, you can find one here.

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