Anxiety Switches on Gene That Speeds up the Spread of Cancer
Master switch gene known as ATF3
Anxiety Switches on Gene That Speeds up the Spread of Cancer. Stress fuels cancer by triggering a “master switch” gene which allows the disease to spread, according to new research. The unexpected discovery could lead to the development of drugs that target the protein and stop tumors from spreading to the organs and causing death. Stress has long been linked to many forms of the disease including breast and prostate cancer. However, the reason has remained a mystery. Now, a team at Ohio State University say our bodies help turn cancer against us by turning on a master switch gene known as ATF3. This is expressed in response to stressful conditions in all types of cells.
The gene promotes the immune cells to act erratically
Usually, it causes normal and benign cells to commit suicide if they decide they have been revocably damaged. The cancer cells somehow coax immune system cells recruited by the sight of a tumor to express ATF3. It is unclear exactly how, but the gene promotes the immune cells to act erratically. This gives cancer an escape route to other areas of the body.
Professor Tsonwin Hai said, “If your body does not help cancer cells, they cannot spread as far. So really, the rest of the cells in the body help cancer cells to move, to set up shop at distant sites. And one of the unifying themes here is stress.” Her researchers first linked the expression of ATF3 in immune system cells to worsen outcomes among a sample of almost 300 breast cancer patients. Experiments on mice had this result. Those lacking the gene had less extensive spread of breast tumor cells to their lungs than ones that could activate it.
When the body gets stressed
“The cancer cells were always the same, but we had different hosts. The primary tumors were similar in size. However, only in the host that can express ATF3, the stress gene, did the cancer cells metastasize efficiently. This suggests that the host stress response can help cancer to metastasize. If the body is in perfect balance, there isn’t much of a problem. When the body gets stressed, that changes the immune system. And the immune system is a double-edged sword,” she said.
When cancer cells first appear
In general, when cancer cells first appear, the immune system recognizes them as foreign. As a result, various immune cells travel to the site to attack them. Prof. Hai said if further research bear out the results “the stress gene could one day function as a drug target to combat cancer spread, or metastasis as it is known medically.” Results published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation provide important insights. They describe how tumor cells use their signaling power to co-opt the rest of the body into aiding cancer survival and movement to distant organs.
Although the work suggest a drug to dampen ATF3’s effect could lower the risk of metastasis, Professor Hai noted scientist do not fully understand what the overall effects would be. She said, “We have this gene for a reason. It is a gene that helps us adapt to changes. So it is a question of how and when to target ATF3.