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What Causes Hodgkin Lymphoma?

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Some researchers think that infection with the Epstein-Barr virus sometimes causes DNA changes in B lymphocytes. In some cases, this leads to the development of Reed-Sternberg cells, which are the cancer cells in HL.

DNA is the chemical in our cells that makes up our genes, which control how our cells work. We look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. But DNA affects more than just how we look.

Some genes control when cells grow, divide into new cells, and die:

  • Genes that help cells grow, divide, and stay alive are called oncogenes.
  • Genes 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, causing it to swell (enlarge). In turn, these non-cancerous cells then release substances that help Reed-Sternberg cells grow.

Despite the advances in knowing how cancer cells work, scientists do not yet know what sets off these processes. An abnormal reaction to infection with EBV or to other infections may be the trigger in some cases. But a lot more research is needed to understand what causes Hodgkin lymphoma.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Bartlett NL, Foyil KV. Chapter 105: Hodgkin lymphoma. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Dorshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa. Elsevier: 2014.

Younes A, Carbone A, Johnson P, Dabaja B, Ansell S, Kuruvilla J. Chapter 102: Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015.

Last Revised: May 1, 2018

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