Monash University researchers have discovered that anti-stress drugs slow the spread of cancer in the body. The study, by Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS) researchers Associate Professor Erica Sloan and senior anaesthetist and PhD student Dr. Jonathan Hiller, along with teams from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, identified that beta-blockers stop cancer cells spreading through the body in women with breast cancer.

Published in Clinical Cancer Research, the study is the first to demonstrate that beta-blockers independently reduce biomarkers of metastasis in breast cancer. In the randomised controlled trial conducted at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, women were either given propranolol or a placebo. Propranolol is a beta-blocker used to treat cardiac disease and anxiety disorders. The trial ran from the time of diagnosis until after the breast cancer surgery.

“We know that stress activates the ‘fight-or-flight’ response and, for patients with cancer, the time from diagnosis to surgery can be both stressful and emotional,” Associate Professor Sloan said.  “Our research discovered that the ‘fight-or-flight response’ can increase metastasis, helping cancer spread through the body. “We harnessed that knowledge by repurposing existing drugs. Our goal was to see if we could stop cancer cells spreading in the body. We found that beta-blockers – which halt the stress response – stopped the cancer invading.’’

In the triple-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial, 64 patients were randomly assigned to receive oral propranolol or placebo for seven days prior to surgery to remove the tumour.  They found that just one week of beta-blockers therapy inhibited cancer invasion, having a protective effect against the spread of the cancer. The researchers believe the findings support the need for larger clinical trials that can prove that beta-blockers improve survival after a cancer diagnosis.

“This study showed how reducing the stress response supports patients during cancer diagnosis and treatment, which is a very stressful time.” Dr Hiller said. “These findings allow us to think about how we can use beta-blockers at the same time as existing cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, to improve survival rates for patients with cancer.”

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