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1911 Discovery - cancer tumor inducing viruses

Another story of heroes in science
Research Subject the Barred Plymouth Rock Chicken

Approximately 20% of Cancers are caused by a Virus.


Here’s an even greater Surprise! 

The discovery was made in 1911 by American Microbiologist Peyton Rous – a discovery ‘trashed’ by the field of microbiology and cancer research for decades. 

Francis ‘Peyton’ Rous, who preferred to go by the name Peyton, (his mom’s name was Frances) was born in Baltimore in 1879. He was a brilliant student and earned a scholarship to John Hopkins where he eventually studied Medicine. In 1902 he developed tuberculosis and took time from university to recover, finally completing his Medical Degree in 1905.

Plagued by Tuberculosis he decided on research rather than a medical practice, eventually doing medical research at Rockefeller University in New York. 

No Such thing as Viruses

Bacteriology and ‘Germ Theory’, introduced in the late 19th Century by Louis Pasteur (French), Robert Koch (German) and others, was at the forefront of research. Anyone suggesting otherwise was something of a ‘Scientific Heretic’ and was dismissed. 

Russian microbiologist Dmitry Ivanovsky researched Tobacco Mosaic in the Czar’s tobacco crops in the 1890s and discovered a virus but since ‘viruses’ had not been discovered, his work was dismissed. Dmitry’s findings did not fit with bacteriology’s ‘germ theory’.

Other researchers, no doubt, encountered similar obstacles.

Filtering Substances 

Bacteriology relied on filtering substances and analyzing residue. It was exceptionally successful; identified a raft of diseases and saved many lives. One can see why it was thought to be the ‘only game in town’ in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Knowing ‘germs’ existed and could make you sick and kill you was incredibly important!

Pasteur’s filtration jar meant water could be filtered and the resulting filtrate was free of bacterium that cause diseases like typhoid, cholera and more. Queen Victoria was an early customer of the device. 

Study of Virology

Dutch botanist and microbiologist Martinus W. Beijerinck (1851 – 1931) is considered the ‘founder’ of Virology – the study of viruses. 

Filtering and analyzing the substance was standard procedure. Matinus recognized that something, other than bacteria, could get though a fine filter and ‘create problems’. He used the word ‘Virus’, meaning ‘poisonous substance’ in Latin for what got though the fine filtering process.

Back to Peyton Rous’ Great Discovery

In February 1911 Rous published his Paper, “A Sarcoma of the Fowl Transmissible by an Agent Separable from the Tumor Cells.” The Paper was published in The Journal of Experimental Medicine, April 1, 1911; 13(4): 397–411.

His Lab critters of choice were Barred Plymouth Rock Chickens.

His Abstract: “A transmissible sarcoma of the chicken has been under observation in this laboratory for the past fourteen months and has assumed of late a special interest because of its extreme malignancy and a tendency to wide-spread metastasis.”

His experimental objective was, “… to determine whether it can be transmitted by a filtrate free of the tumour cells.”

Of his first experiment Rous writes, “… ordinary filter paper was used and the ground tumor was suspended in Ringer’s solution.”

He injected (inoculated) Barred Plymouth Rock Chicken #92 with the filtrate. 

The results, “… growths followed the inoculation of small amount of the watery filtrate …”.

Rous thought the filter wasn’t working properly. 

He wrote, “… historical study of the sarcoma would not lead one to suspect that it can be transmitted by another means than a transplantation of cells.” (p408)

This assumption was based on the fact that his ‘filtrate’ was cell-free.

Because a confirmed discovery of a Virus was 25 years away, he was at a loss to explain what was happening to cause the cancer. He did reference “… a minute parasitic organism.” And also the possibility of “… ultramicroscopic organisms …”. (P409), but he was at the end of the line.

New Direction

His Paper and work on tumor-inducing viruses led no where.

Academic survival probably motivated Rous to re-focus his attention to researching blood and liver. With J.R. Turner and O.H. Robertson they pioneered early Blood Transfusions. 

Awarded the Nobel Prize

Francis Peyton Rous shared the 1966 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

Motivation for the Prize was: “For his discovery of tumor-inducing viruses.”

Peyton shared the Prize with Charles B. Huggins of the University of Chicago. The Prize motivation for Charles B. Huggins was: “for his discoveries concerning hormonal treatment of prostatic cancer.”


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