The activation of sympathetic nerves by psychosocial stress creates a favorable environment in bone for the establishment of cancer cells in a mouse model of breast cancer.
Bone and lung metastases are responsible for the majority of deaths in patients with breast cancer. Following treatment of the primary cancer, emotional and psychosocial factors within this population precipitate time to recurrence and death, however the underlying mechanism(s) remain unclear. Using a mouse model of bone metastasis, we provide experimental evidence that activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is one of many pathophysiological consequences of severe stress and depression, promotes MDA-231 breast cancer cell colonization of bone via a neurohormonal effect on the host bone marrow stroma. We demonstrate that induction of RANKL expression in bone marrow osteoblasts, following β2AR stimulation, increases the migration of metastatic MDA-231 cells in vitro, independently of SDF1-CXCR4 signaling. We also show that the stimulatory effect of endogenous (chronic stress) or pharmacologic sympathetic activation on breast cancer bone metastasis in vivo can be blocked with the β-blocker propranolol, and by knockdown of RANK expression in MDA-231 cells. These findings indicate that RANKL promotes breast cancer cell metastasis to bone via its pro-migratory effect on breast cancer cells, independently of its effect on bone turnover. The emerging clinical implication, supported by recent epidemiological studies, is that βAR-blockers and drugs interfering with RANKL signaling, such as Denosumab, could increase patient survival if used as adjuvant therapy to inhibit both the early colonization of bone by metastatic breast cancer cells and the initiation of the “vicious cycle” of bone destruction induced by these cells.
Improved detection programs and better drugs to eradicate breast tumors have increased survival in women with breast cancer. However, pain and metastasis to distant organs, including bone, remain significant clinical problems. Understanding why and how metastatic cancer cells colonize specific organs is therefore critical if we are to further improve morbidity and mortality for these patients. Using a mouse model of breast cancer bone metastasis, we present evidence that activation of sympathetic nerves, which is typical in chronic stress or depression, promotes the colonization and establishment of metastatic cancer cells within the bone marrow, leading to an increase in bone osteolytic lesions. We show that this effect is mediated via a β-adrenergic receptor-dependent response of the host bone marrow stroma to catecholamines, that are released upon sympathetic activation, and via the pro-migratory activity of RANKL, a cytokine that is well known to promote bone resorption. Of importance clinically, blocking sympathetic activation with a β-blocker, or blocking RANKL signaling in cancer cells, inhibited the stimulatory effect of sympathetic activation on bone metastasis in this mouse model. Stress-induced sympathetic activation may thus explain, at least in part, the reduced survival rate of breast cancer patients experiencing severe depression. The data also support the use of β-blockers or RANKL blockade as possible adjuvant therapy for women with breast cancer.