People’s social interactions could influence their risk of developing various diseases, including cancer, according to population-level studies. In particular, studies have identified a so-called widowhood effect where a person’s risk of disease increases following the loss of a spouse. However, the cause of the widowhood effect remains debatable, as it can be difficult to separate the impact of lifestyle changes from biological changes in the individual following bereavement.
It is not possible to use laboratory mice to identify a causal biological mechanism, because they do not form long-term relationships with a single partner (pair bonds). However, several species of deer mouse form pair bonds, and suffer from anxiety and stress if these bonds are broken. Naderi et al. used these mice to study the widowhood effect on the risk of developing cancer.
First, Naderi et al. grew human lung cancer cells in blood serum taken from mice that were either in a pair bond or had been separated from their partner. The cancer cells grown in the blood of mice with disrupted pair bonds changed size and shape, indicating that these mice were more likely to develop cancer. This effect was not observed when the cells were grown in the blood of bonded deer mice or of another deer mouse species that does not form pair bonds. Naderi et al. also found that the activity of genes involved in the cancer cells’ ability to spread and to stick together was different in pair-bonded mice and in pair-separated mice.
Next, Naderi et al. implanted lung cancer cells into the deer mice to study their effects on live animals. When cancer cells from the deer mice were transplanted into laboratory mice with a weakened immune system, the cells taken from pair-bonded deer mice were less likely to grow than the cells from deer mice with disrupted pair bonds. This suggests that the protective effects of pair bonding persist even after removal from the original mouse.
These results provide evidence for a biological mechanism of the widowhood effect, where social experiences can alter gene activity relating to cancer growth. In the future, it will be important to determine whether the same applies to humans, and to find out if there are ways to mimic the effects of long-term bonds to improve cancer prognoses.