Beta blockers could improve cancer treatment in stressed patients

Having cancer is tough, but what makes it worse is that the anxiety that comes with diagnosis could actually hinder the effectiveness of cancer drugs, according to a U.S. mouse study. But there is a silver lining. The same study also showed that using something as simple and low-cost as a beta blocker could kick-start the anti-cancer effect again.

When mice with human prostate tumors were kept calm and free of stress, an experimental prostate cancer drug stopped growth of cancers. However, when the mice became stressed, the drug stopped working and did not inhibit the tumor growth.

Mice can be engineered to be prone to prostate cancer, and repeated stress makes their tumors grow. The researchers found that the cancer in these mice would respond to bicalutamide, a standard prostate cancer treatment, but that piling on the stress cut the response.

In both groups of mice, adding in beta blockers stopped the stress-induced tumor growth by blocking a pathway activated by epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, that stops cell death. The results are published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.

"Providing beta blockers to prostate cancer patients who had increased epinephrine levels could improve the effectiveness of anti-cancer therapies," says George Kulik, who led the research team at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC.

The next step is to move the research from mice to humans. By using raised epinephrine as a biomarker to guide treatment, doctors could find those prostate cancer patients who would benefit from drugs or other therapies to reduce stress. The findings may also point to new targets for cancer drug development that target both the stress and the cancer.

- read the press release
- see the abstract