April 2, 2011 -- Cancer patients who learn to cope with their stress can have improvement in stress-related biomarkers after a short time, new research suggests.
And that could translate to improved health and possibly improved survival, says researcher Edward Nelson, MD, chief of hematology and oncology at the University of California, Irvine.
The biomarker Nelson looked at is the length of telomeres. Telomeres are the structures on the ends of chromosomes that keep the chromosomes from deteriorating or otherwise going haywire. They're often compared to the caps on the ends of shoelaces.
They can shorten with advancing age, but can also shorten with stress. Stress, in turn, may increase the rate of cancer growth and spread.
Stress reduction can lengthen the telomeres, the new research finds.
"Women participating in our clinical study who experienced an improved qualify of life and decreased stress response had an increase in telomere length in the circulating white blood cells," Nelson tells WebMD.
He is presenting his findings Saturday at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting in Orlando, Fla.
Role of Telomeres
Experts agree, Nelson says, that telomeres ''play a very critical role in maintaining the integrity of the chromosomes and the genes within a cell."
It's now known, he says, that a complex mechanism is in place to maintain these protective caps at the end of chromosomes.
When telomeres get very short, he says, ''they trigger the chromosomes to fuse together, break, or rearrange. In rare circumstances, these sorts of rearranging and damage to the gene can result in the development of cancer."
"In some cancers, the tumor cells have hijacked this mechanism for maintaining the telomeres," Nelson says.
Stress Reduction and Telomere Length
In the study, Nelson randomly assigned 31 women with cervical cancer to one of two groups. Both groups received usual care. But one group also got six, one-hour telephone counseling sessions by a psychologist who suggested coping strategies.
Nelson took blood samples to evaluate telomere length at the study start and after four months. He also gathered information about the women's stress response and their overall quality of life.
Stress reduction translated to longer telomere length, he found.
"The stress didn't change," Nelson says. "Their response to it did."
Nelson says he can't quantify the change in telomere length. It was significant from a statistical point of view, he says.
"It's a very preliminary study," he says. However, he says it suggests more focus should be put on telomere length as researchers try to understand the biology-behavior interaction with diseases.
Alan Meeker, PhD, researches telomere length and cancers, directing the immunohistochemistry lab at Johns Hopkins University.
He reviewed the study results for WebMD.
"It is surprising to me they can see the effect over that short time period in this small of a number of patients," he says. "If it is true, it is pretty dramatic."
''The authors fully realize these limitations," he says. "The main thing is, it needs to be confirmed in a much larger study."
This study is being presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.