Is it possible to transplant cancer from one individual into a human and have the cancer still viably propagate? Could this be done cross-species, or would the source cancer have to also be human? Would similar biology between individuals (blood type, etc.) increase the chances of the cancer continuing to spread in the new host?

If this is possible, what's the best route to take to increase the chances of the cancer being successful in the target's body and decreasing the possibility of the target being curable?

Ideally, just the cancer itself would be needed, but if transplanting a cancerous organ would do it then that's also an option (though I imagine in that case you're going to need an organ that would have been a viable transplant when healthy, right?).

I'm guessing this is more difficult and less reliable than just causing new cancer in a target (via radiation or something)--that's irrelevant for what I'm considering though. The person attempting this operation in this situation is more concerned with the use of a specific instance of cancer than with the efficacy of such a method (which could be for several reasons: some sort of revenge, a weird religious cult preserving the cancer of their founder, some surgeon who is aiming to be a bit more twisted, etc.).

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    $\begingroup$ I... am not sure someone has tried to transplant cancer from one person to another person. That is really twisted... I would think this is rather difficult because normally there is a risk involved, that a body rejects other cells. Therefore I would think this would apply to others cancer cells too. But I have no data to back this up. $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Jan 19, 2017 at 15:21
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    $\begingroup$ Please edit the title to be a question. Something like "Can cancer be transplanted from one person to another?" $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Jan 19, 2017 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ -1 for not googling, this was done in lab animals. And close vote because I can't see how are you building a whole new world with this information. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Jan 19, 2017 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Mołot Not seeing a requirement to build a whole new world with this information, according to the on topic help page. I'm trying to achieve a specified effect in a defined world via use of technology and/or biology. $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2017 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ An important question is of course why? What would transplanting cells achieve that exposing the victim to a carcinogen wouldn't? $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2017 at 17:43

6 Answers 6


Although it is extremely rare, there have been cases of cancer being transmitted from one person to another through surgery or organ transplant. But in people with healthy immune systems this is extraordinarily rare even in whole organ transplants to such an extent that only a few cases are known. So it unless your villain also somehow weakened the victim's immune system, the chance of this actually working in practice is so small that it wouldn't be an effective strategy.

A better approach might be to get some of the victim's own cells, induce cancer in them (such as with a cancer-causing virus), and implant those cells back into the victim. This would allow the villain to select healthy cells from a tissue that develops into hard-to-fight cancer. Since the cells are in culture, the villain would avoid the subject's immune system that would kill off many of the early cancer cells, allowing the cancer to develop more quickly. It would also allow the villain to inject metastatic (mobile) cancer cells directly into the victim's lymph nodes, which is pretty much a guaranteed death sentence for many types of cancers.

If the villain wanted to get fancy, he or she could apply additional carcinogens (cancer-causing compounds) to speed up the process, and screen cells for particular cancerous mutations to further speed things up. The villain could also apply a bunch of anti-cancer drugs in increasing quantities one after another, allowing the cancer cells to develop resistance to the drugs.

This would likely all seem natural to doctors, there shouldn't be any overt hint that foul play was involved. It would just seem like doctors missed the cancer until it was too late. However, if the villain didn't care about it seeming natural, he or she could directly genetically modify the cells, inserting cancer-causing genes and disabling genes that protect against cancer. Such genetic engineering would be obvious, but would also be faster and more reliable.

Edit: added more details about using victim's own cells

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    $\begingroup$ The anti rejection drugs used in transplants usually suppress the immune system quite a lot. I thought this was impossible. If it is possible, I'm surprised this isn't more common. (At least the drugs involved in the transplants I've known... different drugs for different organs.) $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Jan 19, 2017 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM: Yes, and the fact that it is so rare even after the anti-rejection drugs shows just how hard it is to do. $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2017 at 20:37
  • $\begingroup$ Or just give them the virus directly? $\endgroup$
    – jpmc26
    Jan 19, 2017 at 23:29
  • $\begingroup$ @jpmc26 I expanded the answer. Hopefully the edits make it clear why just using the virus alone won't work as well. $\endgroup$ Jan 24, 2017 at 15:40

Essentially you'd just need the right kind of cancer! There's a type of cancer that is transmitted between Tasmanian Devils by biting. Here's also a list of other instances of a similar type of transmission.

It's incredibly rare that cancer passes on to other species, but it has happened (tapeworm to human wit HIV). So if the cancer cells were aggressive and adaptive enough, it certainly would be possible.

  • $\begingroup$ Tasmanian devils are a special case. They already have low genetic diversity, and their behavior (biting each other on the face) promoted the cancer's spread. $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2017 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ Humans also have low genetic diversity, just FYI. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 19, 2017 at 22:05

Yes, it's possible, with buts

There are experiments in immuno-oncology (the branch that tries to combat cancer by nullifying whatever the cancerous cells use to avoid extermination by the immune system) research that graft (aka transplant a little bit) human tumors to mice. So it's not impossible to transplant cancer, even cross-species.

However! The problem with all transplants remain in the way: Rejection. The immune system does not take kindly any foreign object, so transplanted people have to take immunosupressants so their immune system doesn't kill the transplant and them.

Your murderer needs to find a way to immunosupress their target or induce the cancer by other means, or the poor victim will die sooner with an unintended cause of death.


This is a very real possibility in organ transplantation and blood product transfusion. Here is a nice article about it. Cancer cells by definition are endlessly propagating cells of immortal lineage, so if they can get nutrients they will continue to divide.

The body has an "ID code" for determining self versus non-self called Human Leukocyte Antigen system. The closer a cells HLA is to the host, the less likely those cells will be targeted for an immune response. In transplantation or transfusion we are already trying to get as close as possible to the hosts HLA type to prevent rejection. It is very rare to have a perfect match, thus the need for immunosuppression in most transplants. This would hinder the hosts ability to mount an immune response to foreign cancer cells, even if it could recognize them as "not-self".

It is quite common for donor white cells (leukocytes) to survive in a transfused host (transfusion associated micro-chimerism). But rarely these white cells are a close enough match that they won't be destroyed by the host, but they WILL see the host as foreign, setting up what is called Graft versus Host Disease, where the transplanted white cells survive and proliferate in the host and attack the host, causing auto-immune-like diseases and possibly death. This isn't quite cancer, but is very similar. It also occurs with stem cell transplants and bone marrow grafts (especially in this case since the hosts entire bone marrow is killed, totally wiping out their immune system).

Cancer cells pre-existing within a closely HLA matched organ can do the same thing, thus any history of cancer is usually a permanent deferment for transplantation. There are also areas of the body that don't get a lot of blood flow (like joints), so the immune system has poor "visibility" of that area and any cancer cells introduced can proliferate for a while without triggering an immune response.

In your question, this applies to human to human transplantation, where it is possible for the HLA system to be closely matched. For animal to human usually the HLA analog is totally different and humans would easily reject any foreign tissue, but there are some animals with a very similar system (pigs for example, which is why porcine organs for human transplantation are early candidates for genetic modification).

For totally alien cancer cells, they may not express ANY surface antigens that a human immune system would even know how to recognize. So these would be considered a foreign body and generate a foreign body reaction (cancer cells engulfed by macrophages, the cancer gets walled off by fibrosis, much like shrapnel or tattoo pigment). But it is also possible that the alien cancer cells wouldn't generate ANY immune response whatsoever and could proliferate with ease until they blocked something critical that led to the death of the host.

But if you want to use cancer as an assassination tool, by far the easiest way is to expose the target to a highly carcinogenic substance that will cause them to develop their own cancer. But this can have a lengthy timeline and they may get successful treatment. The second option is to get closely HLA matched tumor cells from an aggressively growing metastatic cancer that has ineffective treatment, like malignant melanoma, and injecting them into the target. Metastatic cells are key because these tumor cells have "learned" how to survive as individual cells, land someplace and invade into tissue, and spread quickly. Even this will have a pretty slow course, probably months, but with the right cancer there can be little treatment and an unfortunate inevitability of death.

As an aside, transplant patients (and immunosuppressed patients in general) have a much higher risk of cancer because their immune system is unable to stop NATURALLY OCCURING CANCER. Our immune system zaps cancer cells regularly, but it only has to fail once.


In general, no, it is not. The reason why cancer is not immediately destroyed by the immune system is precisely because cancer cells belong to the same organism where they originate, which makes the immune system recognize cancer cells as their own.

To transplant cancer cells to another host would be like transplanting any other cell to another host. You would have to immunosuppress the host for the cancer transplannt to take hold.

Which means that you'll need to keep your host immunosupresed if you want to succeed. As soon as the host's immune system recognizes the cancer, it's game over. I only see 2 options:

    • Your host is immunosuppressed by definition. (i.e. The host has a medical condition that makes him constantly immunosuppressed)
    • You may transplant a cancerous organ to the host. Livers are one of the most easily transplanted organs and also organs that are easily methastasized. After transplant, the host will need to be kept on immunosuppressive drugs in order not to reject the organ. This will also decrease the likelihood of rejection of the cancer from the host. Even if you get another liver, the host will need to be maintained on immunosuppressants in order not to reject the new liver, so if the cancer had already disseminated, there would be nothing else to stop the cancer.

There is another alternative: one of the most recent and promising cancer treatments available are immunotherapies. These have been discovered recently and have been revolutionizing Oncology since 2011.

Now, immunotherapies basically stimulate the immune system to act against the organism's own tumor cells. Basically this is based on the finding that the organism's own tumor cells inhibit the immune response against them, by expressing surface receptors that turn off any immune cells that come in contact with them.

Imagine that you could genetically engineer a cancer cell line that would express every kind of immunosupressant receptor possible, so that no immune system could be able to fight it. Then you could certainly transfer cancer cells from organism to organism without problem. Heck, you could even have contagious cancers.

This technology is not available right now, but is it certainly near future tech, if someone took the time to develop it.


Is it possible to transplant cancer from one individual into a human and have the cancer still viably propagate?

No. The cancer would be recognized as other-than-self and killed by the immune system. The cancer might or might not include an oncogenic virus which could then cause the same type of cancer in the victim. But you would be implanting the virus, not the cancer.

Could this be done cross-species, or would the source cancer have to also be human?

In the case of viruses, it can be done if the species are similar enough as far as the target DNA is concerned. Simian Virus 40 is believed to target the TRP53 tumor suppressor protein both in monkeys and in humans. While the research is somewhat controversial, no-one disregarded it on the basis of the species barrier.

Would similar biology between individuals (blood type, etc.) increase the chances of the cancer continuing to spread in the new host?

Probably. Again it depends on the virus target.

If this is possible, what's the best route to take to increase the chances of the cancer being successful in the target's body and decreasing the possibility of the target being curable?

We're considering intentional infection here.

In that case, the best route would be to get hold of some stem cells from the victim (or any nucleated cell, which then be forced back to the totipotent stage). If the victim has a monozygotic twin, that also will do as cell source. Then, engineer them into a cancer, progressing them to the anaplastic stage. Low-tech ("natural") method: expose those cells to known carcinogens. Resulting cells might display some telltale antigens as a result. High-tech, much more effective method: directly splice their DNA. Then inject them back in the victim. You get what amounts to instant metastasis, but the host immune system has not been alerted, and if the injected cells have been carefully forged, they will not show any telltale antigen to which the immune system could cotton up.

Bonus points: if the resulting tumor does not grow too quickly, it will still diffuse in most of the body and therefore be incurable. But in addition to that, its cells will also be not as vulnerable to most chemotherapy approaches using cell-cycle-specific drugs.


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