A virus, you say? Yes, a virus. Back in the 1930’s, Dr. Clarence Cook Little of Jackson Memorial Laboratory (also known as JAX Lab) in Bar Harbor, Maine was frantic and frustrated and just about broke. After all, it was the Great Depression. His greatest ambition had always been to be the first man to discover the genes that cause cancer in mice – a prelude to finding them in humans. But Little had hit a wall. Mendel’s Laws of inheritance, which worked well when it came to predicting traits like eye color, failed to accurately predict the risk for breast cancer in mice. Little had every reason to believe cancer genes existed, so he was baffled that he couldn’t nail the pattern of their inheritance as reliably as he could predict other traits. In a last ditch effort to unravel the mystery, Little asked one of his most trusted and capable colleagues, Dr. John Bittner, to see if he could discover something in the milk that might shed light on the problem.
In 1936, after carrying out a series of meticulous, brilliant, and tedious experiments, Bittner did solve the mystery of breast cancer in mice. Indeed, he had discovered something in the milk. He called it the “milk factor”, and it appeared to be a virus.
Unfortunately, Bittner’s discovery created a bigger problem than it solved. You see, at the time the orthodox medical community had forcefully condemned the whole idea of tumor viruses. This prejudice had begun in 1911 when Peyton Rous of the Rockefeller Institute in New York City announced that he’d discovered a tumor virus that caused muscle cancer in chickens. Rous was roundly ridiculed and, on occasion, condemned for suggesting that a virus caused cancer. The poor man had to wait 55 years before he finally won the Nobel Prize for his amazing discovery. Thank God he lived long enough to claim his just reward. So when Bittner discovered what looked like a breast cancer virus in 1936, he knew to keep a very low profile in discussing it with anyone outside of JAX Lab. Ten years later, in an effort to make sure no one stepped over the line into tumor virus research, the men who ran the American Society for the Conquest of Cancer (the forerunner to the American Cancer Society, ACS) formally condemned them as an aberration and a waste of time. Every scientist with an eye on his career got the message loud and clear, and steered clear of the subject on pain of ‘death’. Eventually, Little became president of the ACS, which was great for his career and reputation, but it didn’t help Bittner or the breast cancer virus in the least.
Bittner soon ran out of money to support his work. Little was forced by pragmatism and circumstance to simply look the other way rather than hail the discovery of a breast cancer virus in his lab. Fortunately, at the very last minute research on the breast cancer virus was saved by Mrs. Carolyn McKnight Chase, a very wealthy widow in Minneapolis whose husband had died in his 40’s of cancer of the mouth. She endowed a chair for cancer research at the University of Minnesota and the search committee awarded the position to Bittner. Bittner was able to continue his work with the milk factor, but for many years he wasn’t able to refer to his discovery as a breast cancer virus for he knew that such a declaration would guarantee the end of his career.
The story might have ended in the quiet obscurity of a small laboratory at the University of Minnesota, but something interesting happened in the 1950’s. First, the electron microscope was developed and it confirmed that Bittner’s “milk factor” was, indeed, a breast cancer virus. It was a satisfying moment for Bittner and led to his being nominated for the Nobel Prize twice before he died in middle age of heart disease. At the same time, Dr. Ludwig Gross found a virus that caused leukemia in mice. A few scientists at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) who were familiar with Bittner’s work (and who were braver than many in acknowledging its validity) looked for and found a nearly identical virus in children with leukemia. Well, that made for a brand new day! In no time, the director of the NCI was persuaded of the importance of this discovery and asked Congress for a special appropriation of what was then a huge sum of money – one million dollars – so it could make a thorough study of tumors viruses. Long story short, within 10 years tumor virus research at the NCI was the most prominent subject under investigation. At times, the Special Virus Cancer Program (as it was called) took up 10-30% of the entire research budget of the NCI. Of course, this was great for scientists who were involved in this research, but it made those on the outside insanely jealous and resentful.
As you might expect, research on the breast cancer virus became a hot topic all its own. By the 1960’s, scientists like Dr. Dan Moore had found the virus in human breast milk and were warning the medical community that they ought to take it very seriously as a cause of breast cancer in women. Slowly but surely, the idea that a virus might cause human breast cancer began to take hold.
Well, you might think the story of the breast cancer virus would have gotten better by the year, but then suddenly it was thrown from the roof. In 1968, Dr. Solomon Garb wrote a book, Cure For Cancer: A National Goal, in which he proposed that with enough money and organizational firepower, doctors could cure cancer within 10 years. Dr. Sidney Farber, who had pioneered the use of chemotherapy in children with leukemia and had enjoyed excellent results, concurred with Garb’s conjecture. Mrs. Mary Lasker, an extremely powerful, thoroughly connected political lobbyist who did nothing but advocate for increasing federal funding of medical research, read Garb’s book, ran it by Farber to get his approval, and then single-handedly coerced President Nixon and the majority of the Members of Congress to fund the National Cancer Act (1971), which resulted in what we now refer to as the War On Cancer. Lasker insisted, and Nixon promised, to cure cancer within 5 years – by 1976, in time for the nation’s bicentennial. But here’s the rub: neither Garb nor Farber thought much of tumor virus research. Garb, who was nothing more than an internist at the University of Missouri, had devoted an entire chapter of his book to arguing that tumor virus research was a complete waste of time. His argument was that a cure would make causes immaterial. Meanwhile, behind the scenes on Capitol Hill during the rollout of the National Cancer Act there was a growing chorus of scientists who felt their interests had been sidelined by the NCI in its enthusiasm for tumor virus research, and they happily joined the general clamor in calling for its demise.
The end result of this Shakespearean drama, equal parts comedy and tragedy, was that the entire tumor virus research program at the National Cancer Institute was rapidly defunded and then completely dismantled. The incredible work that had been done on the breast cancer virus – it had been found in mice, rats, cats, dogs and humans, and was discovered to cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, too – was put to the curb like so much trash along with 50 other newly identified tumor viruses. Seven Nobel laureates who had worked on tumor viruses at the NCI for decades went scrambling to find new positions. The lucky ones sailed off in the direction of oncogenes. Dr. Carl Baker was director of the NCI at the time the National Cancer Act was signed into law (1971). He had helped to create, expand, and manage the Special Virus Cancer Program since its inception 1960. Unfortunately, Baker made the mistake of crossing swords with Mary Lasker over details of the new agenda drafted for the War On Cancer. She went to President Nixon, complained about him bitterly, and had him fired. Cancer had officially become a political football and has remained so ever since.
Not everyone in the country subscribed to the notion that doctors would be able to find a cure for cancer within 5 years. Fortunately, a handful of scientists funded by private foundations continued to work on the breast cancer virus. It was a hard slog, but 20 years later their efforts paid off. In 1995, Dr. Beatriz Pogo of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine reported that she’d found a virus in ~40% of women with breast cancer that was 95-98% genetically identical to the one that caused breast cancer in mice. A few years later, Dr. Polly Etkind duplicated Pogo’s results in her laboratory at the Sloan Kettering Institute. You’d think that would have been the ‘shot heard round the world’ for the human breast cancer virus. But the world was deaf to everything but the siren song of cure.
Today evidence is mounting in favor of the existence of a human breast cancer virus. Researchers around the world have found the virus in women with breast cancer and in women who are at an increased risk for breast cancer. To be fair, some scientists have looked for the virus and have not found it, but the majority of papers published in peer-reviewed journals support the existence of a human breast cancer virus as described by Pogo and Etkind 30 years ago. Indeed, Professor James Holland (who is past president of the American Society for Clinical Oncology, and is also past president of the American Association for Cancer Research) announced in April 2015 that he’d found the virus in 94% of the malignant fluids of women with Stage IV breast cancer. In July 2015, sixteen scientists from three countries announced that they’d found the virus in human saliva and believe that this is how it spreads among people. (To learn more about this important discovery use this link: bitly.com/MTVSaliva.)
After 100 years of research, scientists on five continents are 85% sure that the virus that causes breast cancer in mice plays a role in 40-94% of human breast cancer. That’s the good news. The bad news is that despite these impressive data less than $100,000/year is currently spent supporting this research. Why so little? Well, let’s take a look at the business of breast cancer for clues that might explain the impasse. As you know, the breast cancer industry is part of a larger profit-driven healthcare system. No one makes a dime unless there are diseases to diagnose and patients to treat. Breast cancer provides the industry with plenty of both! Ignorance, politics, vanity and power have all played a role in the drama surrounding research on the breast cancer virus, but the billions that are raked in every year diagnosing and treating breast cancer now represent the single biggest obstacle to completing research on the breast cancer virus. There is no conspiracy, per se, getting in the way of the breast cancer virus. Instead, there is a collective of greed, a summation of self-interest in which individual stakeholders, including large breast cancer philanthropies, act solely to maximize their revenue. (By the way, our fire departments are not profit-driven and they work just fine. Providing a service that everyone needs does not require a capitalist business model to serve the public efficiently and well.) With so much money on the table, it’s perfectly clear to those at the pinnacles of this profit-driven system that completing the research on the breast cancer virus would pave the way for the development of a preventive vaccine such as the one that prevents cervical cancer. Who at the top of all this wealth and largesse really wants to see that happen? No one. So, all they have to do is look the other way, smile, and talk up pink and cure.
It may still be dark days for the breast cancer virus. But there’s a ray of hope. The National Institutes of Health celebrated the 60th anniversary of its Clinical Center in July 2013. And whom did they invite to give the keynote address that day but Professor James Holland, a man who has spent the past 30 years pioneering research on the breast cancer virus. Holland was given an enthusiastic applause at the end of his presentation. (His talk is archived on the National Library of Medicine’s website and can be viewed by using this link: bitly.com/HollandNIH.) It’s worth mentioning that the National Institutes of Health would never have invited Professor Holland to discuss the breast cancer virus if the men who run this institution didn’t believe in it too.
A word of caution: It’s important to point out that there’s a possibility that even though scientists are now 85% certain that a virus causes breast cancer in women they might be 100% wrong. The likelihood of this happening becomes less probable by the day, but the breast cancer virus does remain an open question and must be treated as such. However the need to complete the research grows more urgent by the minute: a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer somewhere in the world every 20 seconds, and another woman dies every minute. Really, must we wait another 100 years to solve this murder mystery?