Search for the cause of breast cancer - solid progress by Australian researchers

Document Type

Media Release

Publication Date

Fall 24-3-2010

Publisher Name

The University of Notre Dame Australia, Fremantle Campus

Publication Place



“Finding the cause of breast cancer is one of sciences greatest challenges. For over 100 years, eminent scientists have devoted their lives to this cause, Governments have spent literally billions of dollars and women’s breast cancer action groups have mobilised communities. Sadly, these efforts have met with little success.” (Emeritus Professor James Lawson, March 2010)

Identifying and confirming the presence of cancer causing viruses in breast cancers that have occurred in Australian including Western Australian women, has been the challenge for a group of University of NSW scientists with modest financial support from a US based charity The Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Dallas, Texas.

The new and radical findings of their research was the topic of the first School of Medicine Dean’s 2010 Lecture series held by The University of Notre Dame Australia on its Fremantle Campus.

Guest lecturer, Emeritus Professor James Lawson, shared with participants that the new challenge is to determine whether the viruses actually cause breast cancer or are harmless parasites or passengers in cancers that have already developed.

Professor Lawson has been Professor of Public Health at the University of NSW since 1987 and consultant to the World Health Organisation for over 30 years.

For the past decade he has been exploring the causes of breast and prostate cancer and suggests both may be due to infectious viruses including human papilloma virus, the same known to cause cervical cancer.

Professor Lawson said that the science is difficult to explain because breast cancer is an extremely difficult problem.

“If the problem was easy the cause of breast cancer would have been found decades ago.”

In his presentation he summarised his groups’ work:

“There are many different types of breast cancer, the worst is invasive with a death rate of 50% within 10 years of diagnosis. This compares to non-invasive breast cancer with a death rate of 10% within 10 years.

“There are some important clues. 1. Breast cancer is an overwhelmingly female disease. 2. Breast cancer is four times more common in Western than Asian women but when Chinese and Japanese women migrate to the US or Australia the risk of breast cancer doubles. 3. Use of hormone replacement therapy by post-menopausal women increases the risk of invasive breast cancer by over 25%. These facts indicate that breast cancer risk is associated with female hormones. The Asian migration story indicates that the cause of breast cancer must be external factors and not genetic, although it is known that some women have a genetic susceptibility.

“We have demonstrated the presence of human papilloma virus, Epstein–Barr virus and mouse mammary tumor virus in the various types of breast cancer. Each of these viruses is a known cause of other cancers. Human papilloma virus is the proven cause of cervical cancer. Epstein-Barr virus is the proven cause of lymphomas (cancers of the immune system), cancers of the throat and may have a role in stomach cancers. Mouse mammary tumor virus is the known cause of mammary tumors in mice and other rodents.

“Sex hormones are known to promote the replication of human papilloma virus and mouse mammary tumor virus.

“It is biologically plausible that the many breast cancers originate as a consequence of a combination of viruses, hormones and genetic susceptibility.

“This progress is good news because if these viruses are shown to be not only present in breast cancer but also cause breast cancer, then prevention should be possible by anti-viral vaccines. Such as the vaccine developed by Professor Ian Frazer against human papilloma virus.

Professor Lawson acknowledged the valuable contributions of Dr Barry Iacopetta, a scientist from the University of Western Australia.

“Our work has been greatly enhanced by the work of Dr Iacopetta. He is a great example of successful collaboration among the scientific community.”

Media contact:
Professor Gavin Frost, Dean of the School of Medicine, Fremantle
08 9433 0288