While there’s no evidence stress causes breast cancer, new research suggests it can play a major role in the spread of tumours to other parts of the body.
While it sounds slightly new-age, there’s evidence that adrenaline and other stress hormones can physically change the environment tumours are growing in; acting as a type of ‘fertiliser’ that encourages breast cancer to spread.
While it’s a scary thought, Dr Erica Sloan from Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Melbourne believes it also opens up great opportunities to slow or even stop this process. She’s now investigating whether a common blood pressure medication, known as beta blockers, can slow the spread of breast cancer.
“I’m not going to tell someone who has cancer they shouldn’t be stressed – that’s natural – but there are safe, cheap and widely available drugs that block these stress pathways. We are investigating if these drugs could be used to protect women with breast cancer,” explains Sloan.
“Over the last couple of years clinical studies have shown that women with breast cancer who have hypertension and take beta blockers do much better than other patients,” she says. “People weren’t really sure why, but it suggested that stress response pathways might be involved in cancer progression.”
Using laboratory models, her research group at Monash University proved this was the case.
It was a major breakthrough, but Sloan admits they’re now beginning the hard work of understanding how beta blockers actually work to stop metastases.
“The interactions between healthy breast cells and tumour cells are very complex, we’re trying to work out where stress [fits in]. You don’t want to rush into it and give women the wrong drug.”
The team is trying to understand which beta blockers work the most effectively without side effects, and eventually get them into clinical trials to help current patients. Ideally one day, Sloan would even love to even create beta blockers herself that selectively stop cancer without any adverse reactions.
In the meantime, however, Sloan believes that even though there’s more work to be done, this could be a huge advance for breast – and potentially all – cancer patients.
“We’re getting better and better at detecting breast cancer early, but it’s a problem when the cells spread. If we have a way of slowing down or reversing that process, it’s going to allow us to save many more lives.”