We believe getting measles in the teens or adulthood may affect the immune system and make the body more susceptible to Hodgkin’s disease – Prof. Daniel Benharroch.Israeli researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Soroka University Medical Center have for the first time found a “footprint” of the measles virus in the tissues of patients with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Hodgkin’s is a relatively rare type of cancer of the lymph glands with that develops mostly in people aged 15 to 35. About 7000 Americans are diagnosed with Hodgkin’s each year, and the disease has a 70 percent cure rate.
The Beersheva team, led by Prof. Jacob Gopas, head of the research lab at the oncology institute, and Prof. Daniel Benharroch, head of the hemopathology unit in the pathology institute, published their findings in the prestigious British Journal of Cancer.
“In our research, we decided to look into the tissue of Hodgkin’s patients to check for the presence of measles virus. And we found the presence of measles proteins in 54% of the patients,” Benharroch told ISRAEL21c.
He explained that this doesn’t mean that having measles causes Hodgkin’s Disease, but that measles could change the body’s immune system to make it more susceptible to diseases like Hodgkin’s.
“We’re trying to look for a causal relation and we’re doing that by trying to find the mechanism of action of the measles in the disease. Measles is not known as a carcinogen, but we know that it is a deadly infection – and especially in Third World countries, it causes immune suppression. That could be one step by which the virus can influence the mechanism of the cell to become malignant,” said Benharroch.
“It is still at the level of basic science,” his colleague Gopas told The Jerusalem Post. “There is no reason at all for panic.”
Most cancers, he explained, are not caused by viruses. Exceptions are cervical cancer, which can be caused by the papilloma virus; liver cancer, which can be caused by the hepatitis B virus; and nasopharyngeal cancer, which can be caused by the Epstein-Barr virus [EBV].
For several decades, there has been a known association between EBV, which is involved in infectious mononucleosis (the kissing disease) and Hodgkin’s lymphoma but no causal relationship has been proven, Gopas maintained.
“Patients who had infectious mononucleosis are five times more likely to get Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but that certainly doesn’t mean that everybody who had EBV will get it. We are not saying it’s causative. We believe getting measles in the teens or adulthood may affect the immune system and make the body more susceptible to Hodgkin’s disease.”
According to Benharroch, the project began when Prof. Shmuel Ariad, head of oncology at Soroka, spent a sabbatical at the Health Ministry’s Cancer Registry in Jerusalem. He found epidemiological evidence that girls who had been exposed at around age 15 and 16 to measles had a significantly higher risk as adults of getting Hodgkin’s.
“In Professor Ariad’s research, he found an increase in the last few years of incidence of Hodgkins Disease among young adults. He also noticed that there were outbreaks of measles every three to seven years in Israel, the most significant being in 1982 when 8000 cases were reported, “Benharroch told ISRAEL21c.
Benharroch said that, ironically, coming down with measles as age five or six has been found to be protective against Hodgkin’s. Getting the measles as a teenager or adult is a risk factor, he said.
“Now we’re investigating a number of possibilities. One is that people who are exposed to measles at a later time than usual – the normal time is between one and five years of age – that it increased the risk of developing Hodgkin’s,” said Benharrouch.
While the team’s findings do not show that measles causes Hodgkin’s disease, but the researchers do recommend vaccinating babies against measles.
Since 1967, measles vaccine has been available in Israel and the rest of the Western world. In countries where the rate of measles vaccination is very high, such as in Scandinavia, the incidence of Hodgkin’s has been falling.
“We’re trying to confirm the connection ? the causality between the measles virus and the disease. In any event, this is one more reason for authorities to be more stringent about vaccinations and examine the possibility of providing a booster later in childhood,” said Benharroch.
“Right now, there’s one vaccination around the age of nine months. Some communities are introducing a second shot between the ages of seven and 12. I believe this is required because the effectiveness of the vaccination decreases over time. If we assume that the younger population is being vaccinated, and we still the incidence of measles increasing, then either they’re not being vaccinated to the extent we think, or the vaccination is not valid after a number of years. The booster, therefore, becomes a necessity. In some Scandanavian countries, a booster is given at the age of 12, and there you see the incidence of Hodgkin’s decreasing,” he said.
The scientists are now trying to learn about the mechanism of the virus as related to Hodgkin’s. Since Hodgkin’s is a relatively rare cancer, the team has begun to work with a Philadelphia researcher who will take biopsies from his patients.