Brenda Denzler, a Chatham County, N.C., woman diagnosed last summer with breast cancer, does not know what caused her illness, but recent findings suggest a link between her form of cancer and a virus. She and a growing cadre of scientists are agitating for more research funds to explore whether there is a viral trigger for at least some cases of the disease.
"We have a Race for the Cure," Denzler said, "and I'd like a race for the cause."
Recent studies have yielded compelling connections between the human mammary tumor virus and breast cancer, particularly the aggressive form Denzler has called inflammatory breast cancer, which often presents without a lump.
In a study published last month in the online edition of the journal Cancer, researchers report that 40 percent of breast cancers they tested showed evidence of the virus, and 70 percent of inflammatory breast cancers had it.
Dr. Kathleen T. Ruddy, a breast cancer surgeon in Belleville, N.J., said such findings ought to inspire an all-out drive down that avenue of inquiry, but scientists face a conundrum: They can't get research dollars until a more direct link is discovered, and a more direct link can't be discovered without money for research.
To date, Ruddy said, less than $1 million has been allocated for breast cancer virus studies from the National Institutes of Health. Other big funders such as the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have also kept funding low.
Undaunted, Ruddy has launched an unorthodox campaign that includes social media to raise awareness, interest and money . She started a non-profit called the Breast Health & Healing Foundation, self-published a book, organized a conference, developed an iPhone application, created a YouTube video, began a Web page, a blog and a Twitter account.
"My job, as I see it, is to try and raise awareness as much as possible and create ... a critical funding tipping point to find the money and get it to researchers," she said.
"Once we've got the proof - and I don't think we're that far away - the whole world of breast cancer could change overnight," Ruddy said. "We would be able to develop a targeted therapy to treat that form of disease, test women to find out whose was caused by the virus and whose wasn't, and maybe test women who have been exposed to the virus but haven't gotten the disease yet."
Ruddy, while acknowledging her theory is outside the scientific mainstream, noted that similar theories linking viruses and cancers were proven true, often after years of skepticism. The human papilloma virus is now known to cause cervical cancer, and a vaccine has been developed to thwart the spread. Epstein-Barr virus is linked to a form of lymphoma, and other viruses can lead to liver cancer and leukemia.
"This is not just me with an idea," Ruddy said, noting that the science is further along in Australia and Europe. "There's a body of published research and esteemed researchers who have asked a question, does this virus cause breast cancer? Am I on the periphery? Yes. But we are penetrating the mainstream."
Dr. Kelly Marcom, who studies breast cancer and genetics at Duke University Medical Center, said the notion of a breast cancer virus is gaining credence and should be examined more closely.
He said the scientific view of viral cancers has oscillated from enthusiasm several decades ago, to serious doubts in the more recent past, to a growing curiosity at present.
"It's a tough thing to prove," Marcom said. "But there are a lot of potential causes of breast cancer. Sometimes a cancer looks the same, but maybe some could be caused by viruses and others not by viruses."
Marcom said modern tools are helping researchers detect the differences among cancers, particularly as geneticists explore the molecular origins of tumors. That kind of genetic focus could help prove or disprove a viral connection.
He agrees that more research is warranted.
"We need a better understanding of the mechanism of how it might cause cancer and more epidemiology on tumor samples," Marcom said. "We need to pursue every option."
Denzler, 56, said she is eager for research sooner than later. Her cancer is in remission after an onslaught of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. But long-term prognosis is dim - at best, the five-year survival rate for inflammatory breast cancer is 50 percent.
Inflammatory breast cancer, which accounts for up to 5 percent of all breast cancers, is almost never detected until the late stages, when the breast appears inflamed as the tumor invades the lymph vessels in the skin. Unlike many breast cancers that form a lump, inflammatory breast cancer grows more like an algae bloom throughout the breast tissue.
"I want to find out what caused my cancer and spare others," Denzler said. "If we find out it's caused by a virus, and we can develop a vaccine for this and prevent women from going through this, why would we not want to do that? It's seems like a promising field of research."
Dr. Kathleen Ruddy has launched a social media blitz to raise awareness and funding for research into the possible link between a virus and breast cancer.
To learn more, go to breasthealthandhealing.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun