Do We Know What Causes Hodgkin Disease?

Scientists have found some risk factors that make a person more likely to get Hodgkin disease, but it’s not always clear exactly how these factors might increase risk.

For example, some researchers think that infection with the Epstein-Barr virus may sometimes cause DNA changes in B lymphocytes, leading to the development of Reed-Sternberg cells, which are the cancer cells in Hodgkin disease.

Normal human cells grow and function mainly based on the information contained in each cell’s DNA. DNA is the chemical that makes up our genes — the instructions for how our cells function. We look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. But DNA affects more than how we look.

Some genes control when cells grow, divide into new cells, and die. Certain genes that help cells grow, divide, and stay alive are called oncogenes. Others that slow down cell division or cause cells to die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes. Cancers can be caused by DNA changes that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes.

Scientists have found many gene changes in Reed-Sternberg cells that help the cells grow and divide or live longer than they should. Reed-Sternberg cells also make substances called cytokines, which attract many other cells into the lymph node, enlarging it. In turn, these non-cancerous cells release substances that promote growth of the Reed-Sternberg cells.

Despite these advances, scientists do not yet know what sets off these processes. An abnormal reaction to the Epstein-Barr virus or to other infections may be the trigger in some cases. But more research is needed to understand what causes Hodgkin disease.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: July 10, 2014 Last Revised: May 23, 2016

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please contact