Williams Cancer Institute



In a recent study conducted with mice, researchers may have uncovered a potential link explaining how chronic stress can contribute to the spread of cancer. Scientists from Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory in New York discovered evidence suggesting that stress could induce changes in specific immune cells, inadvertently making it easier for cancer cells to metastasize and invade other parts of the body. These findings underscore the importance of stress management following a cancer diagnosis and could potentially inform the development of new treatments.

Chronic stress has long been recognized as a risk factor for various health issues, including heart disease, headaches, and sleep disturbances. Previous research has also hinted at stress potentially elevating cancer risk or worsening outcomes for those already diagnosed, though the precise nature of this connection remains unclear. As stress often leads to the adoption of unhealthy habits, such as increased alcohol consumption, it might indirectly heighten susceptibility to cancer.

In the study, researchers exposed mice with cancerous tumors in their breast tissue to chronic stress. By transferring some cells to the lungs, mimicking the metastasis process, they observed significantly faster cancer growth in the lungs of stressed mice compared to the control group. Upon closer examination, it was found that stress hormones were influencing the behavior of neutrophils, which are immune cells crucial for the body’s defense against infection and other threats.

Specifically, stress appeared to induce the formation of spider web-like structures called NETs (neutrophil extracellular traps). While NETs are typically employed by neutrophils to engulf germs, the researchers theorized that they might also create a favorable environment for cancer cells to metastasize. Various experiments that removed neutrophils or NETs from the mice, or rendered their neutrophils unresponsive to stress hormones, provided consistent evidence that stress no longer accelerated cancer growth in these scenarios.

Furthermore, there were indications that NETs could make lung tissue a more fertile ground for cancer in general, even in mice without cancer. These findings offer a fresh perspective on the relationship between stress and cancer, highlighting the crucial role of stress management in comprehensive cancer care.

Reference: Yuan Gao, David Ng, Evdokia Michalopoulou, Shanu George, Jose M. Adrover, Lijuan Sun, Jean Albrengues, Juliane Daßler-Plenker, Xiao Han, Ledong Wan, Xiaoli Sky Wu, Longling S. Shui, Yu-Han Huang, Bodu Liu, Chang Su, David L. Spector, Christopher R. Vakoc, Linda Van Aelst, Mikala Egeblad, February 22, 2024 “Chronic stress increases metastasis via neutrophil-mediated changes to the microenvironment”, https://www.cell.com/cancer-cell/fulltext/S1535-6108(24)00037-0

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