The Role of Infectious Agents
By Mark Anderson
A member of my family first noticed something strange about her throat while we were riding together on the London Eye. Soon after our return to the US, she consulted her local doctor, who was clearly not up to the task of a proper diagnosis. Finally, after finding that Sinai would look at her "in a few months," we asked Lee Hartwell, Nobelist and then-president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, for advice. She was under the care of MD Anderson director Dr. Kai Hong within three days.
When we found out that she did indeed have throat cancer, I did some research and discovered published slides of throat-cancer cells with human papilloma virus (HPV) particles in some - not all - of the cells sampled. There was at the time no suggestion of causality.
I did some more research, after which I wrote a short piece for SNS (see "References" below) suggesting that HPV appeared to correlate strongly with throat and neck cancer, and therefore might even be causative (or "co-causal").
Only a few months later, Dr. Hong, who specialized in these cancers, wrote what I believe was the first peer-reviewed paper making the same suggestion. In my (earlier) days at Stanford, the cancer dogma was that cancer was caused by mutations, which in turn were caused either by cosmic rays (reallllly?) or some form of chemical insult (pollution, etc.). Were (at least some) cancers caused by infectious agents?
The race was on.
Soon I had a chance to make a now well-known bet with Lee Hartwell, who had since become a good friend, at our FiRe conference. Onstage, I bet him that at least one-half of cancers were caused by infectious agents; he went for one-third. A third! I was surprised. After all, I had nothing to lose, but Lee is world-famous.
When Lee came back to FiRe a few years later, I brought up our bet, this time raising my wager to suggest that two-thirds of cancers were caused by infectious agents; Lee bumped his bet up to one-half. Half! Things were going my direction.