Social isolation can quicken tumour growth

Degree of social interaction can determine how quickly a cancerous tumour grows, according to a world-first study tracking stomach cancer in fruit flies.

A team of researchers from Australia, France and Spain has used fruit flies to track how cancerous tumours grow in insects in isolation, compared with those kept in a group. Their research showed that tumours progressed more quickly when flies were kept by themselves, and has implications for improving treatment for humans with cancer.

Dr Beata Ujvari, a Senior Lecturer in Bioinformatics and Genetics within Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, hopes the work can help encourage a holistic approach to cancer research and treatment.

Dr Ujvari co-authored a paper on the findings, recently published in “Nature Communications.” She explained that the research builds on similar findings in rats, with fruit flies being chosen for the experiment because they are social animals, like humans, and the researchers believed the stress of isolation could contribute to faster tumour progression.

“When we put a sick fly in with a group of healthy flies, the healthy flies socially isolated that fly to the point where it was experiencing similar levels of isolation to when it was being kept by itself, and we saw similar tumour progression to that scenario,” she said.

“But when the sick fly was put in a group of other cancerous flies, it was included in the social group, and we found that the tumour growth slowed.”
Dr Ujvari explained that research on cancer growth in humans is usually complicated by numerous confounding factors, such as smoking, alcohol use or air pollution. In contrast, the simplicity of the fruit fly study meant the researchers were able to control all factors, demonstrating the direct link between social interaction and cancer growth.

“Researchers have found that humans with tumours in positive relationships usually have better outcomes than those with less family support,” she said.

[testimonial_text]“This new research gives us more evidence of the importance of providing psycho-social support to patients and their families, on top of medical treatments like chemotherapy and radiation.”[/testimonial_text]
[testimonial_picture name=”Dr Beata Ujvari” details=”Senior lecturer, School of life and environmental sciences”]
Dr Beata Ujvari[/testimonial_picture]

In the fruit fly project, Dr Ujvari said she wasn’t sure exactly why the healthy flies isolated others with a tumour, but the insects recognised that the cancerous fly behaved differently and was sick. It was likely that the exclusion was a self-preservation tactic of the healthy flies, to avoid exposure to disease.

“There have also been some studies in humans looking at the effects of socialisation on tumour growth, but more research is needed,” she said. “Our next step will be to replicate our study in zebra fish, which are more closely related to humans.

“This research highlights the value of a holistic approach to cancer research and treatment. It shows the importance of not just focusing on medical treatments, but on recognising that social services could improve patient outcomes too.”

The paper was co-authored by scientists from University Paris-Sud, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Université de Strasbourg, Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology, and Deakin’s Centre for Integrative Ecology in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

Read the article in “Nature:” “Social environment mediates cancer progression in Drosophila”

Published by Deakin Research on 17 September 2018

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