New research from Tel Aviv University may help prevent cancer cells from taking root again after tumor surgery — and the scientists involved say the key to the treatment is stress reduction.
The study, led by Prof. Shamgar Ben-Eliyahu, from Tel Aviv University, shows that psychological and physiological stress prior to, during and after surgery has a biological impact that impairs immune system functioning. This impairment bears down on disease progression, he says, especially at the critical point during oncological surgery when a primary tumor is being removed.
"The psychological stressors of surgery deal a blow to the immune system, but this is hardly discussed in the medical community," says Prof. Ben-Eliyahu. "Ours is among the first studies to show that psychological fear may be no less important than real physiological tissue damage in suppressing immune competence."
The surprising part of the new research, reported in Brain, Behaviour, and Immunity, is that stress hormones such as adrenaline, which are released before and during surgery, appear to underlie much of the devastating effects of surgery on immune competence.
Until now, doctors assumed that the immune system was weakened due to tissue damage and the body's responses to it. A weak immune system is one of the major factors that promotes cancer metastases after an operation, explains Prof. Ben-Eliyahu. "Timing is everything after cancer surgery," he added. "There is a short window of opportunity, about a week after surgery, when the immune system needs to be functioning maximally in order kill the tiny remaining bits of tumor tissue that are scattered around the body."
Prof. Ben-Eliyahu is currently developing a novel intervention program, based on existing generic drugs, to block the influence of these hormones. Pre-clinical studies reveal that by blocking these stress hormones, cancer metastases in animal models could be reduced. In a recent study (in progress), Prof. Ben-Eliyahu also found that by blocking these hormones, he could increase long-term post-operative survival rates from cancer in animal models, by as much as 200-300 percent.
The research team are now also trying to integrate stimulation of the immune system just before surgery and prevent its suppression. This may provide the immune system with an opportunity to eradicate cancer residuals after the surgical removal of the primary tumor, and before these residuals are re-established and become resistant to immunity. "By boosting the immune system and blocking its suppression by psychological and physiological stress, starting a day or two before surgery, during surgery and after surgery, we may be able to provide an intervention program that can extend people's lives and potentially increase their chances for long-term survival," he concluded.
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Source: Tel Aviv University