Saturday, May 12, 2012

Combining happiness and cancer therapy

The immune system is our first line of defence when it comes to infections by bacteria, viruses or other unwanted intruders. Not only does it protect against foreign invaders, it also helps keeping the body's own cells in check. When cells go bad, they can become cancerous, and that means they need to be cleared from the body. The immune system succeeds in getting rid of bad cells most of the time, but in some cases, tumours find ways to evade detection. That is when they become dangerous, and it explains why scientists have been looking at artificial ways to enable the immune system to kill the cancerous cells. Attempts have been made with a cancer vaccine, but scientists from the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences used opioid stimulation. It is peculiar that the stuff found in drugs such as heroin and morphine is beneficial for our immune system.

Immune cells have opioid receptors, which means they are susceptible to the effect of opioid substances. There are many different molecules that belong to this family; it is not just the 'famous' substances such as heroin and morphine. Scientists used artificial molecules that are able to connect with the opioid receptors, of which there are two different versions. Normally, stimulating a receptor results in behavioural changes inside the cell, explaining why so many drugs are receptor-based. The researchers used a combined therapy, which blocked one variant of the opioid receptor, while stimulating another one.

By doing this, immune cells used in the study were found to be increasingly effective against tumour cells. They also showed increased activity against cells infected with bacteria. It is believed that activating opioid systems brings relieve for 'body stress', which is associated with decreased activity of the immune system. Stress, in this context, is defined as a form of physical stress, stopping the body's cells of functioning properly. It is a general term for dysregulated body function, but when something goes wrong, the immune system is often the first to go down, as it uses a lot of energy and thus effort to keep it going.

Happy side effects
As drug abusers know, opioids are not simply stimulants for the immune system. When they act on the brain, they function as pain killers, and also increase levels of endorphins, which are the body's own 'happy pills'. Endorphins generate feelings of excitement and well-being, and people are left with a bad mood if their production is too low. The scientists found that their combined therapy, by lowering body stress, increased the level of endorphins. It therefore seems that side effects from this form of cancer therapy may actually not be that bad.
The structure of heroin, a well-known opioid.
According to the scientists, their treatment can not only be used to treat tumours, but it is also possible to treat patients with low levels of endorphins, that rely heavily on external stimulants. Examples are alcohol abusers, or possibly even drug addicts. It was already known that alcohol abuse can lead to decreased immune function, probably due to the harmful effects of alcohol and the body stress it induces. Therefore, it seems that the opioid therapy might be suitable for more than just one group of patients.

A peculiar combination
Normally, cancer is treated with heavy doses of poison, known as chemotherapy, in addition to radiation therapy. While we are slowly working towards more cancer-specific drugs and getting the immune system involvement, the old-fashioned methods are still widely used, despite their harmful effects to surrounding healthy tissue. While the immune system is normally targeted using vaccines, the method developed by the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Science is rather unusual. They combine two seemingly unrelated things: cancer therapy and the effects of drug use. 

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