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The Committee will get back to you in 56 years.

The Committee will get back to you in 56 years.


Intro: Welcome to “Dumb Ideas that Changed the World.” The views expressed are solely those of the host and do not reflect the opinions of this station or its funders.


Cancer is not a contagious disease, thankfully. It takes enough lives as it is. But an American researcher said some infections can lead to cancer via complex interactive processes. Does this sound like a scientific controversy? You bet it is.


Way back in 1909, the young Dr. Francis Rous took cancer cells from a hen and implanted them into another chicken. The second bird also developed a tumor, but other animals did not. Rous decided the cancer must have been caused by a chicken virus that could be transmitted only to others of the same species. He got a nice publication out of it and continued working.


But Rous’s paper went over like a lead balloon. German scholars dominated oncology, and they were having none of it. No way could cancer be linked to an infection. I hope he didn’t sit by the phone, waiting for a call from the Nobel-Prize committee. He was laughed-off as a clumsy American upstart, and gave up when finding other virus-linked cancers proved difficult.


Poor Dr. Rous. After 18-years’ working on other projects, he resumed his cancer research, but it remained highly controversial. His peers lampooned tumor viruses as “rumor viruses.”


According to Dr. Patrick Moore in Nature, vindication came in 1965 with the discovery of the Epstein-Barr virus, which leads to lymphomas. It turns out Francis Rous was right all along. The following year the Nobel Committee did call, and lucky for them, Rous was still living and working at age 87. It only took 56 years for the rest of the world to catch on.


Cancer isn’t contagious, but can develop from a mutation-causing infection, like hepatitis B, human papilloma virus, or HIV. Patrick Moore says infections cause one out of every five tumors worldwide. Thanks to Dr. Francis Rous, some of them are now preventable via immunization, or treatable in the case of AIDS. You see, some dumb ideas aren’t so dumb after all.


I’m Jeff Gentry


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Best reference:

Moore, P.S., & Chang, Y. (2010). Why do viruses cause cancer? Highlights of the first century of human tumour virology. Nature Reviews Cancer, 10(12), 878–889. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrc2961


Meyer, H. (2016, May). Why is the world so dangerous: A clear explanation of what’s gone wrong, by the intelligence officer who predicted the end of the Cold War. New Windsor, NY: Storm King Press.


Dumb Ideas that Changed the World copyright 2024 by Jeff Gentry. All rights reserved.

Host of Dumb Ideas the Changed the World
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  • Join ENMU’s Jeff Gentry each week on "Dumb Ideas that Changed the World" as he uncovers some of the most important brain cramps of all time. "Dumb Ideas that Changed the World" airs on Wednesdays at about 12:45 p.m. MT on KENW-FM.This program is also available online by clicking the title of an individual episode listed below. Please send any comments or show ideas in an email to Por.Dumbideas@enmu.edu.Explore the fascinating and often surprising blunders made by influential people who should have known better. Tune in to "Dumb Ideas that Changed the World" and feel a little better about your personal cognitive function!
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