Infections and cancer: any link to brain tumours?

There have been numerous postulated links between the development of cancer following exposure to infectious organisms. In the case of the connection between human papilloma virus and cervical cancer, this association has led to ground-breaking treatments in the form of vaccination. A similar connection has been developed between hepatitis B and liver cancer. While many forms of malignancy carry a poor prognosis, malignant brain tumours are often cited as a particularly aggressive form of cancer and this is borne out in survival rates which are dismal.

A question that has been raised in many previous scientific reports is the putative association between cytomegalovirus infection and the development of glioma, a form of malignant brain tumour. There have been previous studies that have suggested a strong link while others have cast doubt on any association. A recent letter in the New England Journal of Medicine has elicited much controversy regarding the possible benefits of anti-viral drugs for CMV being used as treatments for the most aggressive of brain tumours, glioblastoma. Clearly, this is a contentious area and at some point we need to take an objective unbiased view of the data. To that end, in the current issue of JNNP Dey and colleagues have provided an insightful review of the area and have addressed the arguments for and against a role of CMV in glioma development (2). They have addressed the criteria of Koch’s postulates for causation in developing their argument and have taken a close look at the key studies in this area.

This is a timely and interesting review of a very controversial topic.

  1. N Engl J Med 2013; 369:985-986September 5, 2013DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc1302145
  2. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 2015;86:191-199 doi:10.1136/jnnp-2014-307727