Dr. Elizabeth Repasky is a UB Distinguished Alumna

Roswell Park Team Helps Explain How Chronic Stress Weakens Immunity Against Cancer

Researchers identify new mechanism associated with aggressive growth in cancer tumors

  • Team found chronic stress can increase MSDC cells, leading to tumor growth
  • One of the first studies to explain the impacts of stress on cancer immunity
  • Team also exploring strategies to reduce stress, block MSDC cell proliferation

​​​​​​BUFFALO, N.Y. — In 2013, researchers from Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center became one of the first teams to report that chronic stress can encourage the development and proliferation of tumor cells by suppressing natural immunity against cancer. In a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, the same laboratory has revealed an important and previously unknown means through which chronic stress weakens immunity against cancer: through its effect on a specific cell type known as the myeloid-derived suppressor cell (MSDC).

The team, led by Elizabeth Repasky, PhD, Co-Leader of the Cell Stress and Biophysical Therapies Program and the Dr. William Huebsch Professor in Immunology at Roswell Park, has identified a new immunological mechanism through which chronic stress can increase the number of MSDCs in patients’ blood and tumors, which are associated with more aggressive cancer growth.

“Researchers have suspected for some time that chronic stress can lead to increased sicknesses,” says the paper’s first author, Hemn Mohammadpour, PhD, DVM, a postdoctoral research affiliate with Dr. Repasky’s lab. “Our data shows that if tumors are present, chronic stress can specifically activate myeloid-derived suppressor cells, which are known to promote tumor growth.”

Based on these findings, a team of Roswell Park researchers are working together to develop and test the impact of several stress-reducing strategies, including exercise, meditation, yoga and reiki on immune activity. Offering a variety of options is important because it lets patients find the most enjoyable and useful strategies, based on their age and physical abilities.

“Our research strongly suggests that a reduction of chronic stress will improve the immune response against tumors. If reducing patients’ stress can block the activity of these cells,” says Dr. Repasky, “it could add to a more effective strategy to slow tumor growth.”

Several clinical trials are underway at Roswell Park to test the impact of a safe drug to reduce stress in combination with standard of care.

The study, “β2 adrenergic receptor-mediated signaling regulates the immunosuppressive potential of myeloid-derived suppressor cells,” is available at jci.org/articles/view/129502. Nature Immunology also published an editorial about this research, available at nature.com/articles/s41590-019-0574-z. This work was supported by the National Cancer Institute (grants R01CA205246, R01CA099326, R01CA172105 and P30CA016056), the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester and by donations to Roswell Park.


Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center is a community united by the drive to eliminate cancer’s grip on humanity by unlocking its secrets through personalized approaches and unleashing the healing power of hope. Founded by Dr. Roswell Park in 1898, it is the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in Upstate New York. Learn more at www.roswellpark.org, or contact us at 1-800-ROSWELL (1-800-767-9355) or ASKRoswell@RoswellPark.org.

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Annie Deck-Miller, Senior Media Relations Manager
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