Chances are you have never worried about developing mad cow disease from eating a steak, and if you are a red meat lover you have no plans on becoming a vegetarian anytime in the near future. That might change after you learn how the cow virus might actually be the cause behind the majority of colon cancer cases.

A recent theory put forth by 2008 Nobel Prize winner Harald Zur Hausen states that mad cow disease and colon cancer might be connected. Harald zur Hausen during his talk in Lindau 2014 Credit: Christian Flemming / Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Mad Cow Disease and Colon Cancer

As the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for his work in proving that the majority of women who develop cervical cancer got it as a direct result of the human papilloma virus (HPV). Harald Zur Hausen’s work in this field has lead to the development of preventive measures that can now reduce a woman’s chances of contracting the HPV, which also lowers her risk of developing cervical cancer.

It should also be noted that cervical cancer is not the only one that is mainly caused by a virus. Liver cancer is often linked to a specific strain of the hepatitis virus. While his theory that the mad cow virus is a common cause of colon cancer is not supported by any specific evidence, there have been some interesting facts that seem to add validity to the hypothesis.

Since it is not uncommon to learn that some cancers are caused by a virus Zur Hausen’s theory is not all that surprising, but it does go against many researchers who believe that the main cause of cancer is genetics. In response, Zur Hausen does admit that genetics can play a role in a person’s chances of developing colon cancer, he goes on to state that without the presence of the virus the tumors will not be able to grow and spread.

Viral Diseases and the Health of Your Colon

The recent theory proposed by the Nobel Prize winner does not automatically blame all types of meat for causing colon cancer, and Harald Zur Hausen has already started to gather some evidence. Previously it was believed that it was the amount of heterocylic amines that appear in meat when it was being cooked, but the latest evidence collected has caused some scientists to revise their opinion.

Zur Hausen noticed that the way the meat is cooked had nothing to do with the level of heterocylic amines which is basically the same in all meats. This is also good news for most meat lovers who might have been worried that they were putting themselves at risk for developing colon cancer.

To make sure that this evidence was correct, Zur Hausen studied people’s consumption of meat around the world, and found plenty of evidence to support his theory that it is only a specific type of beef that increases a person’s risk of developing colon cancer.

It seems that in countries where the main diet is vegetarian, or where the meats consists mainly of fish, mutton, and goat the reported cases of colon cancer were relatively low. This was also true of people in Bolivia where one of the main food staples was beef, but from a different species than those found in Europe and North America.

The evidence that Zur Hausen found seems to suggest that there might be some validity to his theory, since the highest number of reported cases of colon cancer occurs among people of consume a lot of beef from the Bos Taurus species.

While this is one of the most common types of cows, it also seems that it has the highest risk of being tainted with the mad cow virus. While Zur Hausen has stated that he is working on identifying genetic markers in the beef, it is still too early in his studies to provide any definite answers.


It should be mentioned that it is still only a theory that colon cancer is mainly caused by eating tainted beef, and this does not mean that everyone should give up cheeseburgers. What Zur Hausen is suggesting is that you might want to think about what you are eating on a daily basis.

Even if there really isn’t a connection between the mad cow virus and colon cancer, eating too much red meat can cause other significant health problems. Too be on the safe side it is always best to eat in moderation, and make sure that the next time your eat red meat it is part of a well-balanced meal.