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Can Cancer Be Contagious?

The short answer is: yes.  The longer answer is that Tasmanian devils (TDs), those feisty black and white Australian marsupials, are the first to suffer from it. In an enlightening story about the plight of these little guys, I learned that they are prone to a certain type of mouth cancer that they pass to one another through biting. Now, since biting is part of their mating rituals, this cancer has spread through the TD population like wild fire, even putting them at risk for extinction.

Why am I telling you this? Because it’s quite fascinating that cancer can be contagious. Sure we know that the human papillomavirus (HPV), for example, can be spread through sexual contact and may stimulate the body to produce cervical cancer cells eventually, but this is a more direct and faster method of transmission. Researchers have found that cancer cells in the mouth of the animal doing the biting slough off in the wounds on the other animal, and the cells grow into a new cancer in the injured animal.

So you may ask – can I get cancer from a TD? Not unless YOU’RE also a TD. The reason why the cancer cells can survive in the victim is because TDs have become so genetically similar to one another that foreign cells from another animal are not recognized and attacked by their immune systems. Human immune systems would recognize the TD cells as foreign and attack and kill them quite quickly.We humans can’t even accept an organ transplant from a family member without being on strong immunosuppressive medications.

Nonetheless, this case of contagious cancer is interesting – and makes me wonder if immunosuppressed humans could one day be vulnerable to developing cancer from another person’s cells. But that risk seems rather remote. For now, we should just feel sad for our furry friends down under. I know that at least Dr. Rob, the llama lover, will understand the grief.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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