Tuesday July 24 5:39 PM ET
"Chickenpox Virus Tied to Lower Brain Tumor Risk"
Chickenpox Virus Tied to Lower Brain Tumor Risk
By Amy Norton
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Chickenpox may seem only a
scourge of childhood, but new research suggests that infection
with the chickenpox virus somehow protects against the
development of brain tumors later in life.
A few years ago, researchers came across an unexpected
finding in a study of patients with brain tumors called
gliomas: patients were less likely than healthy people to
report having ever had chickenpox or shingles, another
condition caused by the chickenpox virus, varicella-zoster.
Now, in a new study delving deeper into the link, the
investigators have found that glioma patients are also less
likely than people without the cancer to have antibodies to
varicella-zoster circulating in their blood. Once a person has
had chickenpox, varicella-zoster remains in the central nervous
system and years later can be reactivated to cause shingles, a
painful condition that affects the nerves and skin.
The 134 glioma patients in this study were 60% less likely
than similarly aged, healthy participants to have antibodies to
varicella-zoster virus--an indicator of past infection. By
comparison, their rates of antibodies to three other viruses in
the same family as varicella-zoster (herpesviruses) were
similar to those among healthy participants, according to the
report in the July 15th issue of the American Journal of
"We really don't know what it means," the study's lead
author, Dr. Margaret Wrensch of the University of California,
San Francisco, told Reuters Health.
In the original study, she explained, "we just kind of
stumbled on the association" between chickenpox history and
Now that this study gives more weight to the relationship,
Wrensch noted, more research will be needed to figure out why
chickenpox infection--or lack thereof--might play a role in
She speculated that varicella-zoster cells and developing
glioma cells may have some of the same antigens on their
surfaces. Antigens are substances on cell surfaces that draw an
immune system attack. So a person who has had chickenpox may
have an immune system that is primed to fight gliomas "before
they become dangerous," Wrensch suggested.
Other immune system factors may be at play as well. Wrensch
noted that because varicella-zoster is "so ubiquitous"--most
adults today have had chickenpox--it is very unlikely that
different exposures to the virus explain the different rates of
infection between glioma patients and people without the brain
Gliomas are the most common of the tumors that can arise in
the brain. Although occupational exposure to certain industrial
chemicals has been tied to an increased brain cancer risk,
little else is known about why brain tumors develop.
Wrensch said there is growing interest in the role various
viruses might play.
SOURCE: American Journal of Epidemiology 2001;154:161-165.
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