Nav: Home

Contagious cancer in shellfish is spreading across the Atlantic Ocean

November 27, 2019

Scientists have found a type of transmissible cancer in shellfish that has spread across the Atlantic Ocean and even into the Pacific. The new study was published in eLife.

The CUIMC Newsroom interviewed Stephen Goff, PhD, an expert in transmissible cancers at Columbia University and a co-author of the paper, to learn more about how cancer can spread in shellfish colonies separated by thousands of miles of water, and how that could help us better understand cancer metastasis in other organisms.

Wait, cancer can be contagious?

Yes, but it's a rare occurrence. So far scientists have only observed contagious cancers in three types of animals: Tasmanian devils, dogs, and shellfish. None of these cancers can be transmitted to humans. There are viruses like human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause cancer, but in these cases, it's the virus that spreads, not the cancer cells.

How is cancer transmitted in these animals?

It's known that Tasmanian devils and dogs can transmit cancer cells to other members of their species via bites and sex, respectively.

Columbia researchers in the lab of Stephen P. Goff, PhD, at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, were the first to discover contagious cancers in marine animals. In four separate species of clams, they found that cancer cells could travel through ocean water from one clam to another to spread the disease. Surprisingly, the researchers found that some contagious cancer cells could "infect" a different species of clam.

How widespread is this phenomenon?

In the new study, the researchers collaborated with marine biologists in South America and Europe. They found similar cases of contagious cancers in different mussel species along the coasts of Argentina, Chile, France, and the Netherlands. In some mussel colonies, the cancer was so contagious that it had infected 13% of the population.

The most surprising finding came when the researchers compared French and Chilean mussels. Both populations contained cancer cells that were genetically identical, despite being separated by vast distances. Even Chilean mussels in the Pacific Ocean and French mussels in the Atlantic had identical cancer cells. In other words, the cancer cells had somehow travelled more than 7,000 miles across hemispheres and oceans to infect other organisms. The cancer clone had even spread into species of mussels that were different from the species in which the cancer first arose.

The scientists suspect that the cancer cells had some help. Currents present a significant barrier to the travel of individual cells through the ocean. But mussels are known to attach themselves to the hulls of ships. It is likely that ships transported infected mussels from continent to continent, delivering the disease to new regions.

Ok, but that sounds a little terrifying and now I'm worried about eating seafood

It's absolutely ok to eat seafood. The cancers are specific to shellfish and do not appear to pose a danger to humans who eat them. In humans, cancers originate within a person's body and, as far as we know, can't spread to other people, except in rare cases, such as through organ transplants or during pregnancy.

The researchers think that shellfish are more prone to transmissible cancer because they live in the ocean where malignant cells can easily travel. These animals eat by pumping and filtering huge quantities of water, and they have a very limited immune system that may not be able to block transmission.

So, how will this work help?

Research on how contagious cancers spread in shellfish will help biologists develop more effective plans to protect marine life. And though transmissible cancers in shellfish don't pose a threat to humans, studies of these cancers could be valuable to medical researchers.

"There are parallels between how cancers spread in the ocean and how cancer cells metastasize within humans," says Goff. "Learning more about contagious cancers in shellfish could help us find ways to prevent the metastatic spread of tumors to new sites in the body."

Stephen P. Goff, PhD, is the Higgins Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics and professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The study is titled "A single clonal lineage of transmissible cancer identified in two marine mussel species in South America and Europe." The other authors are Marisa A Yonemitsu, Rachael M Giersch, Maria Polo-Prieto, Maurine Hammel, Alexis Simon, Florencia Cremonte, Fernando T Avilés, Nicolás Merino-Véliz, Erika AV Burioli, Annette F Muttray, James Sherry, Carol Reinisch, Susan A Baldwin, Maryline Houssin, Gloria Arriagada, Nuria Vázquez, Nicolas Bierne, and Michael J Metzger. Their institutional affiliations are listed in the paper.

Support for the study was provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Training Grant (T32 CA009503).

The researchers declare no financial or other conflicts of interest.

Columbia University Irving Medical Center

Related Cancer Articles:

Cancer mortality continues steady decline, driven by progress against lung cancer
The cancer death rate declined by 29% from 1991 to 2017, including a 2.2% drop from 2016 to 2017, the largest single-year drop in cancer mortality ever reported.
Stress in cervical cancer patients associated with higher risk of cancer-specific mortality
Psychological stress was associated with a higher risk of cancer-specific mortality in women diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Cancer-sniffing dogs 97% accurate in identifying lung cancer, according to study in JAOA
The next step will be to further fractionate the samples based on chemical and physical properties, presenting them back to the dogs until the specific biomarkers for each cancer are identified.
Moffitt Cancer Center researchers identify one way T cell function may fail in cancer
Moffitt Cancer Center researchers have discovered a mechanism by which one type of immune cell, CD8+ T cells, can become dysfunctional, impeding its ability to seek and kill cancer cells.
More cancer survivors, fewer cancer specialists point to challenge in meeting care needs
An aging population, a growing number of cancer survivors, and a projected shortage of cancer care providers will result in a challenge in delivering the care for cancer survivors in the United States if systemic changes are not made.
New cancer vaccine platform a potential tool for efficacious targeted cancer therapy
Researchers at the University of Helsinki have discovered a solution in the form of a cancer vaccine platform for improving the efficacy of oncolytic viruses used in cancer treatment.
American Cancer Society outlines blueprint for cancer control in the 21st century
The American Cancer Society is outlining its vision for cancer control in the decades ahead in a series of articles that forms the basis of a national cancer control plan.
Oncotarget: Cancer pioneer employs physics to approach cancer in last research article
In the cover article of Tuesday's issue of Oncotarget, James Frost, MD, PhD, Kenneth Pienta, MD, and the late Donald Coffey, Ph.D., use a theory of physical and biophysical symmetry to derive a new conceptualization of cancer.
Health indicators for newborns of breast cancer survivors may vary by cancer type
In a study published in the International Journal of Cancer, researchers from the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center analyzed health indicators for children born to young breast cancer survivors in North Carolina.
Few women with history of breast cancer and ovarian cancer take a recommended genetic test
More than 80 percent of women living with a history of breast or ovarian cancer at high-risk of having a gene mutation have never taken the test that can detect it.
More Cancer News and Cancer Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Making Amends
What makes a true apology? What does it mean to make amends for past mistakes? This hour, TED speakers explore how repairing the wrongs of the past is the first step toward healing for the future. Guests include historian and preservationist Brent Leggs, law professor Martha Minow, librarian Dawn Wacek, and playwright V (formerly Eve Ensler).
Now Playing: Science for the People

#566 Is Your Gut Leaking?
This week we're busting the human gut wide open with Dr. Alessio Fasano from the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital. Join host Anika Hazra for our discussion separating fact from fiction on the controversial topic of leaky gut syndrome. We cover everything from what causes a leaky gut to interpreting the results of a gut microbiome test! Related links: Center for Celiac Research and Treatment website and their YouTube channel
Now Playing: Radiolab

The Flag and the Fury
How do you actually make change in the world? For 126 years, Mississippi has had the Confederate battle flag on their state flag, and they were the last state in the nation where that emblem remained "officially" flying.  A few days ago, that flag came down. A few days before that, it coming down would have seemed impossible. We dive into the story behind this de-flagging: a journey involving a clash of histories, designs, families, and even cheerleading. This show is a collaboration with OSM Audio. Kiese Laymon's memoir Heavy is here. And the Hospitality Flag webpage is here.