Some raccoons living in the western region of the United States have been found to have rare brain tumors. Researchers at the University of California at Davis are now studying these tumorous raccoons with the hopes that they might teach scientists something new about cancer, mainly what causes cancer, and more important, how to cure cancer.
Researchers collected a group of ten raccoons that all had brain tumors. After the tumors were examined, it was determined that all the raccoons had something in common. A newly described virus called polyomavirus was found in each one the raccoons brain tumors. Researchers believe that this virus may contribute to tumor formation.
This virus, although prevalent, is not traditionally known to cause cancer, and it cannot be spread from species to species, so humans should not have to worry about contracting this virus. Raccoons rarely develop tumors, but this virus has been known to cause cancer in laboratory setting, but rarely in natural settings.
It is difficult to use human models in order to study the progression of cancer since cancer can take decades to develop in a human being. Since raccoons only live for about two to three years, they serve as the ideal models for studying how viruses contribute to tumor formation.
Although researchers do not know much about how raccoons develop cancer, they do know that cancerous raccoons are more prevalent in urban regions where they are closer to human populations. Urban raccoons are more likely to develop cancer because they live closer to polluted cities, and raccoons are known to enjoy living amongst trash and even human waste, which could cause cancer in raccoons. This makes sense since viruses can easily be picked up in unsanitary conditions, and researchers have already confirmed that infectious pathogens, like viruses, are responsible for up to twenty percent of all cancer cases worldwide.
Why do you think raccoons are studied as opposed to other wild animals with short lifespans?