Psychological Stress may Accelerate Pancreatic Cancer

Psychological stress accelerates the development of pancreatic cancer by triggering the release of “fight-or-flight” hormones. Beta-blockers, which inhibit these stress hormones, were found to increase survival in a mouse model of the disease.

The results of the patients with advanced pancreatic cancer that the individuals who were taking beta-blockers for another condition lived around 66% longer compared with the individuals who were not taking the medications.

Link between stress and tumor development.

Recent studies have demonstrated that emotional and psychological stress play a role in the development of tumors in general.

Through the sympathetic nervous system, this effect is thought to occur, which releases hormones that give the body a surge of energy so it can respond to perceived dangers.

“Some scientists dismissed this idea since stress is difficult to measure,” said study leader Timothy C. Wang, MD, the Dorothy L. andDaniel H. Silberberg Professor of Medicine at CUMC.

“Others surprised to a biological process how stress could possibly be related that involves the growth of cancer cells and DNA mutations within a specific organ, such as the pancreas.”

Psychological Stress may Accelerate Pancreatic Cancer

Stress promotes the development of precancerous growths in pancreas

The current study was designed to discover the links between stretch and early development of pancreatic cancer.

The researchers studied in the pancreas of mice that are genetically predisposed to developing abnormal growths.

The mice were raised in stressful living conditions (confined to a small space); control mice were raised in normal housing.

A precursor to pancreatic cancer, following 14 weeks on mice, 38 percent of the stressed were found to have neoplastic pancreatic lesions.

No such lesions were seen in the controls. “We know that you need a DNA mutation to start on the path to cancer, but our findings suggest that stress is doing something to move things along,” said Dr. Wang.

Stress works through pancreatic nerves

The researchers examined mice revealed that in the bloodstream stress increases levels of catecholamines, the fight-or-flight hormones.

Within the pancreas, catecholamines drive production of molecules that stimulate nerve growth around tumors. Those new nerves, thus, promote tumor promote and make more catecholamines, perpetuating the cycle.

Dr. Wang says, “As such, stress sets up what we call a feed-forward loop between nerves and cancer cells that promotes tumor development”.

Beta-blockers may improve survival in pancreatic disease

In experiments with a different mouse model of pancreatic cancer, the group demonstrated that treating mice with chemotherapy and beta-blockers lived significantly longer than mice treated with chemotherapy alone.

The scientists also looked at survival in 631 patients who had surgery to treat advanced pancreatic tumor between 2002 and 2013. The individuals who were taking nonselective beta-blockers after surgery had a median survival of 40 months, around 66% longer than patients taking selective beta-blockers, which affect fewer targets in the body, or neither type of beta-blocker.

Dr. Wangsaid, “It is premature to suggest the use of beta-blockers for these patients, until the point that we conduct prospective clinical studies. But, beta-blockers could potentially turn out to be a part of the overall treatment regimen for pancreatic cancer.”

Can stress reduction help prevent or slow pancreatic cancer?

Dr. Wang said, “A handful of studies, and a lot of anecdotal evidence, propose that maintaining a positive outlook is good for your health and can help with recovery from any disease. Will a positive outlook change the prognosis of a patient with advanced pancreatic cancer? Most likely not.But, it certainly won’t hurt, and it could be a part of the overall approach to slowing the progression of cancer to other types of treatment to kick in”.


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