Deep sequencing – which identified a viral contaminant of the rotavirus vaccine Rotarix - could have revealed the presence of simian virus 40 (SV40) in the poliovirus vaccine, had the technique been available in the 1950s. Exposure of over 100 million Americans to SV40, and many more worldwide, could have been avoided, as well as the debate about the role of this monkey virus in human cancer.
SV40 was discovered by Maurice Hilleman in 1960 as a contaminant of poliovirus vaccine. It was present in batches of both the Salk and Sabin poliovirus vaccines produced and distributed from 1954 to 1963. The source was the rhesus and cynomolgous monkey kidney cells used to produce the vaccine. Even more troubling was the observation that SV40 could cause tumors in hamsters. By 1963 screening procedures were instituted to ensure the absence of SV40 in poliovirus vaccines. Ironically, monkey cells were used for poliovirus vaccine production because it was feared that human cells might contain unknown human cancer viruses.
SV40 does not cause tumors in its natural host – monkeys – because it kills infected cells. However, in the wrong host- such as a hamster – the viral replication cycle is incomplete and virions are not produced. At a very low frequency, pieces of the viral DNA become integrated into the host chromosomal DNA. Problems arise if these viral DNA fragments encode the viral T (tumor) antigen. This protein is essential for lytic replication (which takes place in monkey cells) because it kick-starts cellular DNA synthesis. The cellular DNA synthetic machinery is then co-opted for replication of the viral DNA. When only T antigen is present, the cells divide without stopping – they are transformed, and on the way to becoming a tumor. SV40 does not need to cause tumors as part of its life cycle; they are an aberrant result of having T antigen push the cells to divide. SV40 T antigen can transform human cells, and therefore in theory the virus could cause human tumors.
The results of epidemiological studies initiated in the 1960s through the 1970s, in which thousands of poliovirus vaccine recipients were studied, indicated that this population did not have an increased risk of developing cancer. More recent reports that SV40 viral DNA is present in human tumors have led to a debate on the contribution of this virus to human cancer. Some of the arguments for and against presence of SV40 in human cancers are presented below.
Evidence that SV40 is present in human tumors
SV40 DNA has been detected in several human tumors, including osteosarcoma, mesothelioma, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Similar tumors are induced by the virus in hamsters.
Poliovirus vaccine produced in 1954 contained a variant of SV40 that can be distinguished from common laboratory strains. This viral variant has been found in three non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients
Evidence that SV40 is not present in human tumors
SV40 DNA is not present in all samples of a cancer, and in some studies of mesotheliomas, it has not been detected in any.
SV40 viral DNA has been detected in tumors of those who could not have received contaminated poliovirus vaccine.
In a comparison of mesotheliomas and normal tissues, SV40 DNA has been detected as frequently in both.
Analysis of the SV40 sequences in mesotheliomas showed that the viral DNA was derived from a laboratory strain which contains a gap that is not present in the wild type viral genome.
Even if SV40 DNA were definitively shown to be present in human tumors, this would not answer the question of whether the virus caused the cancer. The debate on the role of SV40 in human malignancy illustrates the difficulty in establishing cause and effect, and provides ample impetus for using genomic technologies to ensure that vaccines and other biological products are free of adventitious agents.
López-Ríos F, Illei PB, Rusch V, & Ladanyi M (2004). Evidence against a role for SV40 infection in human mesotheliomas and high risk of false-positive PCR results owing to presence of SV40 sequences in common laboratory plasmids. Lancet, 364 (9440), 1157-66 PMID: 15451223
PEDEN, K. (2008). Recovery of strains of the polyomavirus SV40 from rhesus monkey kidney cells dating from the 1950s to the early 1960s Virology, 370 (1), 63-76 DOI: 10.1016/j.virol.2007.06.045