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Social Isolation Can Hasten Tumour Growth

Social interaction, or lack of it, can determine how quickly a cancerous tumour grows, according to a study tracking stomach cancer in fruit flies.

Dr Beata Ujvari, a Senior Lecturer in Bioinformatics and Genetics at Deakin University, used fruit flies to track how cancerous tumours grew if the insect was kept in isolation. The results, published in Nature Communications (https://goo.gl/D9KxWx), showed that tumour progression advanced quickly when the fly was kept by itself.

Ujvari said fruit flies were chosen for the experiment because they are social animals, and she believed the stress of isolation contributed to the faster tumour progression. “When we put the sick fly in with a group of healthy flies, they socially isolated that fly to the point where it was experiencing similar levels of isolation to when it was being kept by itself, and we saw similar tumour progression to that scenario,” she said. “But when the sick fly was put in a group of other cancerous flies, it was included in the social group, and we found that the tumour growth slowed.”

Ujvari said she wasn’t sure exactly why the healthy flies isolated others with a tumour, but the insects recognised that the cancerous fly behaved differently and was sick.

She said the study in fruit flies built on similar findings in rats. “There have also been some studies in humans looking at the effects of socialisation on tumour growth, but more research is needed,” she said. “Our next step will be to replicate our study in zebra fish, which are more closely related to humans.”

Ujvari said that social supports could become a more important focus point of cancer treatment, on top of medical treatments like chemotherapy and radiation.