cells seem to have a harder time growing among pair-bonded mice,
according to a new study that explored the "widowhood effect."
Pair of mice
Does love possess healing powers? The question might seem naïve, but it is one physicians have contemplated in various forms for nearly two millennia.
idea that love heals might have originated from its inverse: sadness
harms. In the 2nd century, the Greek physician Aelius Galenus proposed
that melancholy and depression can cause cancer. Other physicians would
go on to repeat this hypothesis, including Arab doctors in the 9th
century, French physicians in the 17th century, and the 20th century
American psychologist Elida Evans, whose 1926 review of 100 cancer
patients found that all had lost important emotional relationships prior
to developing the disease.
The results of a new study suggest that loving relationships do indeed protect against cancer. What's more, this protection does not seem
to stem from the behavioral or lifestyle traits of couples but rather
from a biological mechanism that directly inhibits tumor growth.
researchers extracted blood sera from two groups of mice. One group
comprised monogamous mice that had bonded for one year; the other had
their pair bonds disrupted after 12 months. The researchers then grew
human lung cancer cells in sera from both groups. In the blood of mice
with disrupted pair bonds, cancer cells grew larger, took on shapes
linked to an increased risk of cancer, and showed gene activity that
suggested an increased ability to spread.
researchers conducted a second experiment within live mice. They
extracted lung cancer cells from pair-bonded and pair-disrupted mice and
implanted the cells into virgin mice with weakened immune systems. The
cancer cells from pair-disrupted mice grew more effectively in the
virgin rodents, suggesting that "the protective effects of pair bonding
persist even after removal from the original mouse."
Love heals all wounds
the results suggest that social activity — particularly pair bonding,
e.g. positive and intimate relationships — can change the gene
expression and growth of tumors. But how? It is not exactly clear, but
the authors of an article published in Trends in Molecular Medicine proposed a three-step process:
correct, this process could change how researchers think about the
widowhood effect, which is often explained by lifestyle changes,
hormone-induced changes to the heart, or disregarded as coincidence. The
new model could establish a biological basis for the effect, one that
illuminates avenues for novel cancer treatments in humans — if the same
processes are observed in people.
The researchers wrote:
at widowhood represent a distinct pathological entity that may deserve
targeted therapeutic strategies, which should take into consideration
social interactions. Thus, preventive measures could be developed to
mitigate such pro-oncogenic effects in individuals at bereavement."
It's hard to say what those treatments would look like. After all, even though research has linked pair-bonding to numerous health benefits —
longer lifespan, lower blood pressure, improved mental health — doctors
cannot prescribe love. Pharmacological treatments would probably need
to do the job.
researchers also noted that the results raise concerns over medical
studies that utilize animal models: given that the health of mice may
partly depend on the rodents' own relationships, it is possible that
some studies failed to "accurately capture the whole spectrum of the
tumorigenic process and the associated host-derived factors."