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Cancer thrives on human stress as it spreads throughout the body

Stress is a ubiquitous part of life, particularly acute for those battling cancer. The repercussions of chronic stress extend beyond mere emotional strain, contributing significantly to physical ailments such as heart disease and strokes.

Moreover, it has been suggested that stress might play a role in facilitating the spread of cancer, though the mechanisms behind this phenomenon remained elusive — until now.

An enlightening study conducted by Xue-Yan He, a former postdoctorate researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), alongside Adjunct Professor Mikala Egeblad and Professor Linda Van Aelst, explores how the human mind influences cancer metastasis.

Their findings could revolutionize treatment strategies, offering hope for preventative measures against cancer’s spread.

Intricate dance of stress and cancer

Xue-Yan He articulates a reality many cancer patients face: the omnipresence of stress, driven by the diagnosis, insurance concerns, and familial responsibilities.

Understanding the impact of stress on cancer progression is crucial, as He notes, given its inevitability in patients’ lives.

“Stress is something we cannot really avoid in cancer patients. You can imagine if you are diagnosed, you cannot stop thinking about the disease or insurance or family. So it is very important to understand how stress works on us,” He explains.

The collaborative research effort led by He and Egeblad has identified a critical mechanism by which stress contributes to cancer metastasis.

They discovered that stress prompts specific white blood cells, known as neutrophils, to form web-like structures that render body tissues more susceptible to cancer spread.

The experiment: From observation to insight

The researchers embarked on their investigation by simulating chronic stress in mice with cancer. After removing tumors from the mice, the animals were subjected to stress, leading to a startling observation by He. They found a significant increase in metastatic lesions, with instances of up to fourfold escalation in metastasis.

Further exploration revealed that stress hormones, glucocorticoids, interact with neutrophils, inducing the formation of NETs (neutrophil extracellular traps).

While NETs typically serve a protective role against infections by trapping harmful microorganisms, they paradoxically facilitate a metastasis-conducive environment in the context of cancer.

To verify the connection between stress-induced NET formation and increased metastasis, He conducted three pivotal experiments involving neutrophil removal, NET-destroying drugs, and mice genetically modified to have neutrophils unresponsive to glucocorticoids.

The outcome was consistent across all tests: stressed mice did not exhibit increased metastasis.

Preparatory role of stress in healthy tissues

An alarming discovery was that chronic stress led to NET formation in the lung tissues of mice without cancer, suggesting that stress primes healthy tissues for potential cancer development.

This revelation underscores the profound impact of stress on the body, extending beyond those already diagnosed.

The study’s findings advocate for the integration of stress reduction into cancer treatment and prevention strategies.

As Linda Van Aelst asserts, minimizing stress should be a critical component of comprehensive cancer care. “Reducing stress should be a component of cancer treatment and prevention,” she says.

Looking forward, the research team is optimistic about the development of drugs targeting NET formation, offering a preventive approach for patients at risk of metastasis.

Such treatments could potentially slow or halt the spread of cancer, providing a beacon of hope for individuals grappling with this devastating disease.

This breakthrough underscores the intricate connection between psychological stress and physical health. By illuminating the mechanisms through which stress influences cancer spread, the research paves the way for innovative treatment strategies, emphasizing the importance of holistic care in the battle against cancer.

The full study was published in the journal Cancer Cell.


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