Putting the squeeze on breast cancer

Woman examining her breasts and underarm area of her body for any cancer growth, tumour or cancerous abnormalities. Image shot 2010. Exact date unknown.UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have literally put the squeeze on malignant breast cancer cells to guide them back into a normal growth pattern.

The findings, presented last month at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, showed for the first time that mechanical forces alone can revert and stop the out-of-control growth of cancer cells.

And, it seems, this change happens even though the genetic mutations responsible for malignancy remain, setting up a nature-versus-nurture battle in determining a cell’s fate.

We are showing that tissue organization is sensitive to mechanical inputs from the environment at the beginning stages of growth and development,” said principal investigator Daniel Fletcher, professor of bioengineering at Berkeley. “Compression, appears to get these malignant cells back on the right track.”

breastcellsThroughout a woman’s life, breast tissue grows, shrinks and shifts in a highly organized way in response to changes in her reproductive cycle. For instance, when forming the berry-shaped structures that secrete milk during lactation, healthy breast cells rotate as they form an organized structure.

One of the early hallmarks of breast cancer is the breakdown of this normal growth pattern. Not only do cancer cells continue to grow irregularly when they shouldn’t, recent studies have shown that they do not rotate coherently.

While the traditional view of cancer focuses on genetic mutations within the cell, scientists at the Berkeley Lab showed that a malignant cell is not doomed to become a tumor. Instead, its fate is dependent on its interaction with the surrounding microenvironment. Better still, manipulation of this environment can tame mutated mammary cells into behaving normally.

breast compressionPeople have known for centuries that physical force can influence our bodies,” said researcher Gautham Venugopalan. “When we lift weights, our muscles get bigger. The force of gravity is essential to keeping our bones strong. Here we show that physical force can play a role in the growth and reversion of cancer cells.”

Venugopalan and collaborators grew malignant breast epithelial cells in a gelatin-like substance that had been injected into flexible silicone chambers. The flexible chambers allowed the researchers to apply a compressive force during the first stages of cell development. Over time, the compressed malignant cells grew into more organized, healthy-looking structures, compared with malignant cells that were not compressed.  Notably, those cells stopped growing once the breast tissue structure was formed, even though the compressive force had been removed.

Malignant cells have not completely forgotten how to be healthy; they just need the right cues to guide them back into a healthy growth pattern,” said Venugopalan.

While researchers are not proposing compression bras as a treatment for breast cancer, they say their work provides new clues to track down the molecules and structures that could eventually be targeted for therapies.

All of which is good news for the girls!

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What’s Your Sleep Number?

Yesterday morning I was up at 3.15am to catch a flight, this morning it was 4.00am.  Tomorrow I have a 6.00am flight and on Friday I can look forward to another at 5.40am. Each of these early morning departures has, or will be, preceded by a late evening meeting.  All of which led me to thinking about sleep, or lack thereof.

A sleepless night can make us cranky and moody. So much so that sleep deprivation is sometimes used as a form of torture. So I was pleasantly surprised by new research that shows it can also bring on temporary euphoria.

Scientists at UC Berkeley and Harvard Medical School studied the brains of healthy young adults and found that their pleasure circuitry got a big boost after a missed night’s sleep. However that same neural pathway that stimulates feelings of euphoria, reward and motivation after a sleepless night may also lead to risky behavior.

When functioning correctly, the brain finds the sweet spot on the mood spectrum. But the sleep-deprived brain will swing to both extremes, neither of which is optimal for making wise decisions,” said Matthew Walker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study.

The findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, underscore the need for people in high-stakes professions and circumstances not to shortchange themselves on sleep.

Medical professionals, airline pilots and new parents take note.  “Based on this evidence, I’d be concerned by an emergency room doctor who’s been up for 20 hours straight making rational decisions about my health” added Walker.

So how much sleep do we need?

Most adults function best with 7 to 9 hours of sleep, although only about two-thirds of Americans regularly get it. Children fare better with 8 to 12 hours, while elderly people may need only 6 to 7.

One-third of Americans are sleep-deprived, regularly getting less than 7 hours a night, which puts them at higher risk of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and other health problems.

And then there are “short sleepers”.  It’s estimated that about 1% to 3% of the population, function well on less than 6 hours of sleep. Such people are both night owls and early birds, and tend to be unusually energetic and outgoing.  Not only are their circadian rhythms different from most people, so are their moods and their metabolism. They also seem to have a high tolerance for physical pain and psychological setbacks.

Who are these people?  Some short sleepers say their sleep patterns go back to childhood and some see the same patterns starting in their own kids, such as giving up naps by age 2. “As adults, they gravitate to different fields, but whatever they do, they do full bore,” says Christopher Jones, a University of Utah neurologist and sleep scientist

Typically, at the end of a long, structured phone interview, they will admit that they’ve been texting and surfing the Internet and doing the crossword puzzle at the same time, all on less than six hours of sleep,” says Dr. Jones. “There is some sort of psychological and physiological energy to them that we don’t understand.”

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Leonardo da Vinci and Margaret Thatcher were too busy to sleep much, according to historical accounts. Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison came close but they were also fond of taking naps, which may disqualify them as true short sleepers.

Nowadays, some short sleepers gravitate to fields like blogging, and social media, where their sleep habits come in handy.

We can’t argue with that.  As many Word on Health readers have noted, ours is the first mail to hit their in-box every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Have any sleep stories to share?  We’d love to hear from you.