While breast cancer incidence rates in the United States have been dropping since 2000, it’s estimated that approximately 40,000 women will die from the disease this year. Researchers have recently discovered an unexpected risk factor that may surpass known ones such as obesity and postmenopausal hormone use.
Bovine leukemia virus (BLV) causes malignant lymphoma and lymphosarcoma in up to five percent of infected beef and dairy cattle. Until recently, the medical community believed that BLV could not be transmitted to humans.
That idea was shattered by a University of California-Berkeley team led by Professor Gertrude Buehring of its School of Public Health. In 2014, the group of researchers turned up the first-ever evidence of BLV in humans.
Prof. Buehring then had her team turn their attention to investigating a link between BLV and breast cancer. Samples were obtained from 239 women, some of whom were breast cancer patients. BLV was discovered in 59 percent of samples from the latter, compared to 29 percent in those who were cancer-free.
At this point it’s not known how BLV infects breast tissue, although Prof. Buehring speculates that possible causes are unpasteurized milk, unprocessed meat or human-to-human transmission. She also states that there is no proof at this point that BLV is a direct cause of breast cancer. Further studies will focus on determining whether BLV is present before tumors develop.
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