09:09am Wednesday 18 October 2017

Comment on the report about increased cancer risk from meat and processed meat

enlarged view Prof. Harald zur Hausen | © dkfz.de

“It has been known for many years that there is a link between high consumption of red meat and processed meat products and the risk to get colon cancer. In the past, this was attributed primarily to a number of chemical compounds that form during the processes of grilling, frying or roasting (in particular nitroso compounds and aromatic hydrocarbons). However, it has become evident that the same chemical substances, which can also cause cancer in rodents when fed in high doses, also form when frying or broiling poultry or fish. So far, however, the intake of these types of meat has not been linked to an increased risk of developing colon cancer. In addition, it has been noted that populations with a very high intake of red meat and processed meat products, such as in Mongolia, Bolivia and Botswana, have a comparatively low colon cancer risk. Therefore, it is important to analyze the type of meat consumption that prevails in these countries.

Our research group has been intensively pursuing these questions. This research has made increasingly evident that meat products from a specific breed of cattle (specifically European-Asian dairy cattle) raise the colon cancer risk. Since we suspect the involvement of a species-specific factor, we started looking for corresponding agents in dairy cattle and derived products. Currently we are pursuing evidence derived from the isolation and characterization of specific infectious agents in this type of cattle in order to analyze their role in cancer, in synergism with the cited harmful chemical substances.

In our view, a global statement needs to be revised which states that red meat and meat products processed thereof (such as sausages) are responsible for the raise in cancer risk. Above all, in-depth epidemiological analyses are necessary to clarify whether and how the link to a species-specific factor can be confirmed by other studies.”

Publications by Harald zur Hausen on the topic (available upon request from the Press Office):

zur Hausen, H.: Proliferation-inducing viruses in non-permissive systems as possible causes of human cancers. Lancet 2001; 357: 381-384.

H. zur Hausen. The search for infectious agents of human cancers: where and why. Nobel lecture .Virology, 392: 1-10, 2009.

zur Hausen H: Red meat consumption and cancer: Reasons to suspect involvement of bovine infectious factors in colorectal cancer. Int. J. Cancer 2012; 130: 2475-2483.

zur Hausen, H. and de Villiers, E.M. Dairy cattle serum and milk factors contributing to the risk of colon and breast cancers. Int J Cancer. 2015; 137: 959-967

zur Hausen H. Risk factors: What do breast and CRC cancers and MS have in common? Nat Rev Clin Oncol. 2015; 12: 569-70. 


The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) with its more than 3,000 employees is the largest biomedical research institute in Germany. At DKFZ, more than 1,000 scientists investigate how cancer develops, identify cancer risk factors and endeavor to find new strategies to prevent people from getting cancer. They develop novel approaches to make tumor diagnosis more precise and treatment of cancer patients more successful. The staff of the Cancer Information Service (KID) offers information about the widespread disease of cancer for patients, their families, and the general public. Jointly with Heidelberg University Hospital, DKFZ has established the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) Heidelberg, where promising approaches from cancer research are translated into the clinic. In the German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK), one of six German Centers for Health Research, DKFZ maintains translational centers at seven university partnering sites. Combining excellent university hospitals with high-profile research at a Helmholtz Center is an important contribution to improving the chances of cancer patients. DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of National Research Centers, with ninety percent of its funding coming from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the remaining ten percent from the State of Baden-Württemberg.

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