Dolphins help scientists understand cervical cancer

February 23, 2010 03:47 pm | Updated 09:31 pm IST - Washington

Dolphins get multiple infections of papillomaviruses, linked with cervical cancer in women

Dolphins get multiple infections of papillomaviruses, linked with cervical cancer in women

Dozens of test samples from dolphins show that they could help marine biologists clue in on human cervical cancers.

Marine mammals like dolphins are our close kin, but scientific knowledge of infectious diseases, particularly of viral origin, affecting these animals is limited, researchers say.

“We discovered that dolphins get multiple infections of papillomaviruses, which are known to be linked with cervical cancer in women,” said Hendrik Nollens, marine mammal biologist and assistant professor at the University of Florida (UF)’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Dolphins are the only species besides humans that we know of that can harbour co-infections, or infections of multiple papillomavirus types, in the genital mucosa.”

There are approximately 100 types of human papillomaviruses (HPV), and multiple-type infections of up to eight HPV types have been reported in humans, he said.

“Even more surprisingly, some virus groups have shown the ability to cross the marine-terrestrial ecosystem boundary — from sea to land,” Mr. Nollens said.

“We have demonstrated at least one case of genetic recombination between viruses of human and marine mammals. So while it’s exciting that dolphins can provide a unique window into the role of co-infection in human cervical cancer, we can’t rule out that the next high risk virus, such as SARS, or West Nile, might actually come from the marine environment,” he added.

“Why do people develop the disease, but dolphins don’t? If we can figure out why, the human medical community might be very interested in how that information might be applied to human strategies for preventing the disease,” he said.

No animals are harmed during collection of cell and tissue samples, although some are obtained from animals that have died of natural causes in the wild, said an UF release. These findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and published this week in PLoS Biology.

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