Retroviruses (without transforming genes) are thought to cause leukemias and other cancers in animals and humans because they were originally isolated from those diseases and because experimental infections of newborns may induce leukemias with probabilities of 0 to 90%. According to this hypothesis viral cancers should be contagious, polyclonal, and preventable by immunization. However, retroviruses are rather widespread in healthy animals and humans where they typically cause latent infections and antiviral immunity. The leukemia risk of such infections is less than 0.1% and thus about as low as that of virus-free controls. Indeed retroviruses are not sufficient to initiate transformation (a) because of the low percentage of symptomatic virus carriers and the complete lack of transforming function in vitro; (b) because of the striking discrepancies between the long latent periods of 0.5 to 10 years for carcinogenesis and the short eclipse of days to weeks for virus replication and direct pathogenic and immunogenic effects; (c) because there is no gene with a late transforming function, since all genes are essential for replication; (d) because host genes, which do not inhibit virus, inhibit tumorigenesis up to 100% if intact and determine the nature of the tumor if defective; and above all (e) because of the monoclonal origin of viral leukemias, defined by viral integration sites that are different in each tumor. On these bases the probability that a virus-infected cell will become transformed is estimated to be about 10-11. The viruses are also not necessary to maintain transformation, since many animal and all bovine and human tumors do not express viral antigens or RNA or contain only incomplete proviruses. Thus as carcinogens retroviruses do not necessarily fulfill Koch's first postulate and do not or only very rarely (10-11) fulfill the third. Therefore it has been proposed that retroviruses transform inefficiently by activating latent cellular oncogenes by for example provirus integration. This predicts diploid tumors with great diversity, because integration sites are different in each tumor. However, the uniformity of different viral and even nonviral tumors of the same lineage, their common susceptibility to the same tumor resistance genes, and transformation-specific chromosome abnormalities shared with nonviral tumors each argue for cellular transforming genes. Indeed clonal chromosome abnormalities are the only known transformation-specific determinants of viral tumors. Since tumors originate with these abnormalities, these or associated events, rather than preexisting viruses, must initiate transformation. Therefore it is proposed that transformation is a virus-independent event and that clonal viral integration sites are consequences of clonal proliferation of transformed cells. The role of the virus in carcinogenesis is limited to the induction of hyperplasia which is necessary but not sufficient for carcinogenesis. Hyperplasia depends on chronic viremia or high virus expression which are very rare in animals outside the laboratory and have never been observed in humans. Since latent viruses, which are typical of nearly all natural infections, are neither direct nor indirect carcinogens, they are not targets for cancer prevention. Viruses are also not targets for cancer therapy, since tumors are not maintained and not directly initiated by viral genes and occur naturally despite active antiviral immunity.

Lymphotropic retrovirus has been proposed to cause AIDS because 90% of the patients have antibody to the virus. Therefore antibody to the virus is used to diagnose AIDS and those at risk for AIDS. The virus has also been suggested as a cause of diseases of the lung and the nervous system. Promiscuous male homosexuals and recipients of frequent transfusions are at a high risk for infection and also at a relatively high annual risk for AIDS, which averages 0.3% and may reach 5%. Others are at a low risk for infection and if infected are at no risk for AIDS. AIDS viruses are thought to kill T-cells, although these viruses depend on mitosis for replication and do not lyse cells in asymptomatic infections. Indeed the virus is not sufficient to cause AIDS (a) because the percentage of symptomatic carriers is low and varies between 0 and 5% with the risk group of the carrier, suggesting a cofactor or another cause; (b) because the latent period for AIDS is 5 years compared to an eclipse of only days to weeks for replication and direct pathogenic and immunogenic effects; and (c) because there is no gene with a late AIDS function, since all viral genes are essential for replication. Moreover the extremely low levels of virus expression and infiltration cast doubt on whether the virus is even necessary to cause AIDS or any of the other diseases with which it is associated. Typically, proviral DNA is detectable in only 15% of AIDS patients and then only in 1 of 102 to 103 lymphocytes and is expressed in only 1 of 104 to 105 lymphocytes. Thus the virus is inactive or latent in carriers with and without AIDS. It is for this reason that it is not transmitted as a cell-free agent. By contrast, all other viruses are expressed at high titers when they function as pathogens. Therefore AIDS virus could be just the most common occupational infection of those at risk for AIDS because retroviruses are not cytocidal and unlike most viruses persist as latent, nonpathogenic infections. As such the virus is an indicator of sera that may cause AIDS. Vaccination is not likely to benefit virus carriers, because nearly all have active antiviral immunity.


Supported by (OIG) National Cancer Institute Grant CA-39915A-01 and Council for Tobacco Research Grant 1547 and by a scholarship in residence of the Fogarty International Center, NIH, Bethesda, MD.

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