Linkage 1/15: Poverty, Loneliness & Cancer

If you’ll forgive the light posting today, I’d like to direct you to an article that appeared this week on the website of New Scientist magazine by Peter Aldhous, “Poor Neighborhoods Can Kill.” Aldhous gives a broad overview of a collaboration here at the University of Chicago that we’ve only barely nibbled at here on the blog, a team of biologists, clinicians, sociologists and epidemiologists that are grappling with a sobering statistic – breast cancer death rates of black women in Chicago are a shocking 68 percent higher than the rates for white women.

A frequent theme here has been the simultaneous promise and difficulty of translating animal research and laboratory findings to the real world, but this project offers a pretty remarkable example of how different types of research can be united. The effort builds bridges from Martha McClintock’s studies of social isolation worsening breast cancer in rats, to Suzanne Conzen’s studies of the genes that show increased expression in stressful or isolated conditions, to Funmi Olopade’s research on differences in breast tumors in populations of African-American and West African women.

Results from the collaboration indicate that social isolation and a fear of crime cause an overload of stress hormones that can change cell biology, sending tumours into overdrive. “We’re showing that your social environment can affect your health directly,” says Suzanne Conzen of the University of Chicago. “It goes into gene expression. That concept is really new.”

What’s more, sociologist Sarah Gehlert (now at Washington University in St. Louis) has taken those results out into the community, collecting surveys and hormonal measurements from South Side Chicago women diagnosed with breast cancer.

Gehlert suggests that the fear that comes with living in high-crime areas combined with scant social support causes overproduction of cortisol, similar to that seen in McClintock’s isolated rats. This eventually erodes the body’s ability to release the stress hormone, creating the flatline effect. Similar “burnout” patterns have been seen in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

It’s a great article on a great project, do check it out.


– The coolest science story of the week may have been the discovery that the Y chromosomes of humans and chimpanzees are much different than previously thought, suggesting dramatic evolution for both species on the chromosome that carries male-sex genes.

– While donations flood in to aid the people of Haiti after this week’s tragic earthquake, science writer Jonah Lehrer contributes a timely post on how the value of a charitable donation is reflected in the brain.

– The science blog NCBI ROFL moves to Discover magazine’s website, and given that their angle is one of my favorite time-wasters (searching for weird and funny articles on PubMed, the online library of scientific journals), it’s definitely going to be a regular visit. For a taste, enjoy the Onionesque “getting babies drunk” study, or the study that uses Pink Floyd-induced hallucinations to screen for a neurological disease.

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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