Infectious agents and cancer: criteria for a causal relation

Semin Cancer Biol. 2004 Dec;14(6):453-71. doi: 10.1016/j.semcancer.2004.06.009.


Infectious agents, mainly viruses, are among the few known causes of cancer and contribute to a variety of malignancies worldwide. The agents and cancers considered here are human papillomaviruses (cervical carcinoma); human polyomaviruses (mesotheliomas, brain tumors); Epstein-Barr virus (B-cell lymphoproliferative diseases and nasopharyngeal carcinoma); Kaposi's Sarcoma Herpesvirus (Kaposi's Sarcoma and primary effusion lymphomas); hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses (hepatocellular carcinoma); Human T-cell Leukemia Virus-1 (T-cell leukemias); and helicobacter pylori (gastric carcinoma), which account for up to 20% of malignancies around the globe. The criteria most often used in determining causality are consistency of the association, either epidemiologic or on the molecular level, and oncogenicity of the agent in animal models or cell cultures. However use of these generally applied criteria in deciding on causality is selective, and the criteria may be weighted differently. Whereas for most of the tumor viruses the viral genome persists in an integrated or episomal form with a subset of viral genes expressed in the tumor cells, some agents (HBV, HCV, helicobacter) are not inherently oncogenic, but infection leads to transformation of cells by indirect means. For some malignancies the viral agent appears to serve as a cofactor (Burkitt's lymphoma-EBV; mesothelioma - SV(40)). For others the association is inconsistent (Hodgkin's Disease, gastric carcinomas, breast cancer-EBV) and may either define subsets of these malignancies, or the virus may act to modify phenotype of an established tumor, contributing to tumor progression rather than causing the tumor. In these cases and for the human polyomaviruses the association with malignancy is less consistent or still emerging. In contrast despite the potent oncogenic properties of some strains of human adenovirus in tissue culture and animals the virus has not been linked with any human cancers. Finally it is likely that more agents, most likely viruses, both known and unidentified, have yet to be implicated in human cancer. In the meantime study of tumorigenic infectious agents will continue to illuminate molecular oncogenic processes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic
  • Humans
  • Infections / complications*
  • Infections / microbiology*
  • Infections / virology
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Neoplasms / microbiology
  • Neoplasms / virology*
  • Viruses / pathogenicity*