Low temperatures as therapy?: Cold indirectly inhibits cancer growth

Cold therapy is particularly useful for people suffering from pain and inflammation.

Low temperatures as therapy?: Cold indirectly inhibits cancer growth

Cold therapy is particularly useful for people suffering from pain and inflammation. Researchers in Sweden are now investigating how ambient temperatures affect cancer. They too see real cold effects and find out how they come about.

It was not previously known whether ambient temperatures have an influence on cancer growth. Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have now found a first approach to how cold affects the growth of cancer cells. Professor Yihai Cao's team from the Department of Microbiology, Tumor and Cell Biology first examined how the tumors developed under different temperatures in mice with various types of cancer, including colon, breast and pancreatic cancer.

The animals, which were used to temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius, had significantly slower tumor growth and lived almost twice as long compared to mice in rooms at 30 degrees Celsius, the research team reported in the journal Nature. But this knowledge alone was not enough for the scientists. They wanted to know why that is.

They therefore looked at different markers in the tissue to examine cellular reactions. They also used imaging techniques to analyze glucose metabolism. It is already known that cancer cells need large amounts of glucose or sugar in order to grow.

The researchers found that low temperatures triggered increased glucose uptake in brown adipose tissue. This brown fat is also responsible for keeping the body warm when it is cold. At the same time, the experts saw that the glucose signals in the tumor cells were hardly detectable. "We found that cold-activated brown adipose tissue competes with tumors for glucose and can help inhibit tumor growth in mice," says Yihai Cao, according to a statement from the institute.

I In further tests, the research team found that both the removal of the brown adipose tissue and the switching off of the UCP1 gene, which is important for these metabolic processes, nullified the anti-cancer effect driven by the cold. In the same way, a high glucose intake by means of a sugary drink caused tumor growth in the mice to increase again. In all three cases, the tumor continued to grow at the same rate as in mice in a warm environment.

But how could the findings help people with cancer in the future? In order to answer this question as well, the researchers took further steps. They recruited six healthy adults and one cancer patient who was being treated with chemotherapy. Wearing shorts and T-shirts, the healthy volunteers were exposed to a room temperature of 16 degrees Celsius for six hours a day for two weeks. Using something called positron emission tomography (PET) scanning, the research team was able to see that a significant amount of brown fat in the neck, spine and chest areas was activated by the cold.

The cancer patient was treated more gently due to the weakened immune system. He wore light clothing while he was in 22 degrees Celsius rooms for one week and then in 28 degrees Celsius rooms for four days. During the lower compared to the higher temperature, he showed an increase in activated brown fat and a reduced uptake of glucose.

"We are optimistic that cold therapy and brown adipose tissue activation with other approaches such as drugs could provide another tool in the toolbox for treating cancer," concludes Yihai Cao. However, the results would have to be confirmed in larger clinical studies beforehand.

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