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Rutgers Cancer Institute links stress to breast cancer

The Cancer Institute of New Jersey received a $600,000 grant from the Department of Defense to study p53, a protein which may be involved in breast cancer. The research specifically focuses on the relation between stress and cancer. – Photo by Marielle Sumergido

The Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey (CINJ) has received a nearly $600,000 grant from the Defense Department to conduct research into the role that chronic stress plays in breast cancer.

Wenwei Hu, an associate professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology, will be conducting research to examine how stress might be related to breast cancer, as well as if stress can lead to the formation of tumors.

“The association between chronic stress and increased risk of human breast cancer development has long been strongly suggested,” said Hu, who is a researcher with the CINJ.

Hu said her team created a mouse model that mimics chronic stress in humans. Initial results show that chronic stress has an effect on a “critical tumor suppressor” in the p53 pathway.

There is a lack of evidence between chronic stress and breast cancer due to a corresponding lack of animal models, she said.

The p53 protein is one of the most studied proteins in cancer research because of its “potent tumor suppressive activity,” according to the Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology article.

The protein reacts to a large number of stress signals, Hu said. The p53 protein is a transcription factor, meaning it “tells” cells how to reproduce by signaling specific genes to replicate.

If the protein becomes malformed, it might spark an uncontrollable reaction, which causes cells to continuously reproduce, she said. Those cells would then be considered cancerous.

Other than skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer diagnosed among American women, and 1 in 8 women contract invasive breast cancer over their lifetime, according to

The relationship between psychological stress and cancer becomes apparent in several behaviors like smoking, overeating or alcohol consumption, which increases a person’s risk for cancer according to the National Cancer Institute.

The study will provide insight into further strategy designs that will prevent breast cancer promoted by chronic stress, Hu said. It will also provide evidence of how chronic stress can affect breast cancer physically rather than just behavior.

“However, currently the role of chronic stress in breast cancer development remains elusive due to the lack of direct evidence from animal models,” she said.

In 2016, more than 40,000 women are expected to die from breast cancer, though fatality rates have been decreasing since 1989, according to the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program (DoD).

Ninety percent of deaths from breast cancer are due to it developing into a metastatic disease, according to the DoD. When a disease becomes metastatic, the cancer cells from a specific cancer break off into the bloodstream and spread to other organs, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Factors that could contribute to breast cancer are age, family history, reproductive history, breast cancer susceptibility gene (BRCA) status and breast density, according to the DoD.

The research conducted at the CINJ by Hu will provide another incremental step in a dense amount of breast cancer studies to further inform women about any preventative measures. The understanding of how chronic stress links with breast cancer can also help.

“We anticipate that this study will provide significant molecular insights into the increased breast cancer risk due to chronic stress,” Hu said. 

Hernan Guarderas is a School of Arts and Sciences senior, majoring in journalism and media studies. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum. See more on Twitter @hguarderas93.


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