Chemical in brain that helps you feel better, may actually help you get better
(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – It’s often referred to as the “reward chemical” in your brain. Each time you do something pleasurable, like take a bite of dessert or pet a puppy, your brain releases a chemical known as dopamine as a way to reward and remind you of your experience.
But researchers are discovering that dopamine may offer rewards we never imagined. A study published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that a man-made version of dopamine could be a powerful new tool in the battle against cancer.
“When we think about dopamine, we commonly think about the brain,” said Dr. Sujit Basu, MD, PhD, of Ohio State University’s James Cancer Hospital and the lead author of the study. “But we were the first to find out that dopamine also plays some very important roles in tumors.”
Specifically, Dr. Basu and his team of researchers have discovered that injecting dopamine into tumors, vastly improves blood flow. Normally, blood vessels inside tumors are chaotic, unstable and often leaky, which makes delivering cancer-fighting drugs like chemotherapy less effective.
That was the case with Sandra Staghorst. After surgery and one round of chemotherapy, tumors in her colon reappeared, and presented her doctors with a problem.
“There’s not sufficient blood flow to the areas with cancer, like there is to a normal organ,” Sandra said, “and that that was a big challenge - particularly with the kind of cancer that I had.”
But Dr. Basu’s research could help change that. In lab animals, he injected dopamine into colon and prostate tumors and was surprised by the results.
“It worked like a wonder,” said Dr. Basu. “It not only normalized the blood vessels, it increased the blood flow,” he said. “The difference is highly significant, because with better blood flow, we were able to double the amount of anti-cancer drugs in the tumor tissue.”
That could make treatments like chemotherapy and radiation not only much more effective but, by using dopamine, remarkably more efficient.
“A dose of dopamine costs 33-cents,” said Dr. Basu. And with better blood flow, doctors could use less medicine and shorter doses of radiation to kill tumors.
“When you compare it to drugs being used in the clinics nowadays, it’s really, really inexpensive,” said Dr. Basu. “What’s more,” he continued, “it’s safe. Dopamine has been used in the clinics for many years now and all it’s toxicities are well-known and manageable.” In fact, Dr. Basu says in his experiments, dopamine allowed cancer-fighting drugs to kill tumor cells, without doing any damage to healthy cells.
During her 4-year bout with cancer Sandra says, besides her faith, it was often the love of her horses that got her through. “They were a huge motivation,” she said. “I would think ‘I’m going to walk to the barn today. I’m going to groom a horse today.’ And I found the strength to do it.”
“When I was around my horses,” she said, “I’d forget about everything. Nothing hurt, and I suddenly wasn’t tired.”
Scientists say Sandra’s love for horses was both a comfort and motivation for her because of the dopamine that’s released in her brain whenever she is around them. And someday soon, the same chemical could play a role in cancer cases like hers.
“The proof of principle is there,” said Dr. Basu. Now we just need to get this into the clinics to treat cancer patients.”
That could happen within the next few months.