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What Happens if Your Circadian Rhythms Are Out of Whack?

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Scientists discovered an important molecular link between lung tumour growth and disrupted circadian rhythms, according to a new study co-authored by a University of Rochester Wilmot Cancer Institute investigator and led by the Scripps Research Institute in California.

Circadian rhythms, sometimes called the ‘biological clock’, is the cellular process that rules sleep-wake cycles. The World Health Organization has proclaimed that disrupted circadian rhythms are a probable carcinogen.

The latest research, published in the journal Science Advances, describes that when the circadian clock gets off track it implicates a cancer-signature gene known as HSF1 that can trigger lung tumours. Lungs are under tight circadian control and seem to be particularly vulnerable to a disrupted biological clock.

The paper describes in mouse models the role of HSF1 signalling, a previously unknown mechanism that may explain tumour formation in response to rhythm disruption. 

The findings also suggest that it may be possible to target HSF1 with drug therapy, to prevent cancer among people with frequently disturbed circadian rhythms. 

Although this study was done in mice, other data links circadian disruption to human tumours, said co-author Brian Altman, PhD, an assistant professor of Biomedical Genetics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and a Wilmot faculty member.

‘Everything points in the same direction,’ he said. He noted that in this case, when the circadian clocks in mice are disrupted by inconsistent sleep, for example, the outcomes are highly relevant to people who work night shifts or rotating schedules.

Altman’s chief contribution to the study was to provide expertise on a scientific method to assess how the circadian clock behaves in tissues. The Scripps team reached out to Altman to collaborate after seeing a presentation he gave at a scientific meeting on the use of the technique, which was invented in 2018 at Vanderbilt University by Jacob Hughey, PhD Altman and his lab have been focused on circadian rhythms and the connection to cancer for several years.

The lead author of the study is Katja Lamia, PhD, associate professor of Molecular Medicine at Scripps. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

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