Decades ago, concern was raised that the milk of dairy cows frequently contains a leukemia-causing virus—more specifically, bovine leukemia virus (BLV), the leading cancer killer among dairy cattle. Most U.S. dairy herds are infected with the cancer virus. “Thus the question of whether dairy cows naturally infected with BLV release infectious virus into milk is an important public health consideration” and the subject of my video Is Bovine Leukemia Virus in Milk Infectious?.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania decided to put it to the test. And indeed, infectious virus was demonstrated in the milk of 17 of the 24 cows tested, indicating that “humans are often orally exposed to BLV.” Just because we’re exposed to it doesn’t mean it’s causing human disease, though. How do we know BLV can even infect human cells? We didn’t until 1976 when it was discovered that BLV can indeed infect human, chimpanzee, and rhesus monkey cells. Nevertheless, that still doesn’t mean BLV necessarily causes cancer in other species.
Researchers can’t lock human infants in a cage and feed them infected milk, but they can cage infant chimpanzees. Chimps Bois and Roger were fed infected milk, developed leukemia, and died. Until then, we didn’t even know chimps could get leukemia. The fact that BLV-infected milk appeared to transmit or induce leukemia in our closest living relatives certainly did raise the stakes, but human beings are not chimpanzees. Yes, our DNA may be 98 percent identical, but we may share 60 percent of our DNA with a banana. We need human studies.
We can’t do interventional trials in this case, thanks to those pesky Nuremberg principles, but what about observational studies? Do cattle farmers have higher rates of cancer? Apparently so. This finding led some to suggest that “milk- and egg-borne viruses may be highly important in the pathogenesis [or development] of human leukemia and lymphoma,” but farmers may be exposed to all sorts of potential carcinogens, such as pesticides. Large animal veterinarians may also have more leukemia and lymphoma, but some are also “particularly lax in the use of X-ray protective equipment,” so it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with viruses.
We needed so-called serology studies, testing people’s blood for antibodies against the virus, which would prove human exposure, and we got them. Ten different studies looked for BLV antibodies in cancer patients and non-cancer patients, creamery employees versus office employees, veterinarians, unpasteurized milk drinkers, and more. “Not one of these studies found a single individual with antibodies to BLV…” As a result, in 1981, the case was closed: “Therefore, there is strong serological evidence to indicate that BLV is not transmissible to man.” However, the strength of the evidence is only as strong as the strength of the test. Chimpanzees Bois and Roger didn’t develop detectable antibodies either, and they died from BLV.
The tests available a handful of decades ago were not really sensitive. “Clearly, the question of whether BLV poses a public health hazard deserves thorough investigation” using highly sensitive molecular probes. It would take a few decades for us to get such an examination, and I discuss those landmark findings in my videos The Role of Bovine Leukemia in Breast Cancer and Industry Response to Bovine Leukemia Virus in Breast Cancer.
Thankfully, feline leukemia virus does not appear to be transmissible. See Pets and Human Lymphoma.
Michael Greger, M.D.
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