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UCLA researchers to study depression in breast cancer survivors

UCLA researchers received a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute that will fund a study seeking to uncover risk profiles of breast cancer survivors likely to suffer from depression.

UCLA will be teaming up with Kaiser Permanente, which will provide the 300 volunteers needed for the study by culling through electronic patient records to locate women who have been treated for breast cancer and don't have a history of depression.

Researchers believe that cancer and its treatment induce inflammation, which in turn leads to sleep disturbance and depression. Sleep disturbance occurs in more than half of breast cancer survivors, and is thought to contribute to the nearly four-fold elevated risk of depression in these women. Depression negatively impacts quality of life and increases risk of death, possibly due to increased chance of cancer recurrence.

Through the study, researchers hope to find out if certain sub-sets of breast cancer survivors are more at risk for depression by examining their DNA for potential biomarkers and genetic anomalies. If they can identify a risk profile, a study would be launched later to evaluate prevention measures, said Dr. Michael Irwin, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

"Depression in breast cancer survivors is a huge problem. It often goes undiagnosed and is under treated," Irwin said. "If we can identify those breast cancer survivors at elevated risk for sleep disturbance and, therefore, depression, we can diagnose and treat it earlier with better outcomes. Additionally, if we can identify those at greatest risk, efforts can be implemented early to prevent the occurrence of depression in the first place. Because depression is so prevalent and difficult to treat in breast cancer survivors, prevention of depression will dramatically improve quality of their life."

For many cancer patients, their survival is complicated by long-term physical and behavioral late effects of their treatment, especially depression, Irwin said. The prevalence of depression in breast cancer survivors is nearly three to five times greater than the general population. However, the unique clinical, behavioral and biological factors that contribute to increased depression risk in breast cancer survivors is not known.

"There are no published prospective data that have examined the independent contribution of sleep disturbance on depression occurrence in breast cancer survivors," Irwin said. "Increasing evidence implicates that sleep disturbance is activating inflammatory signaling, which serves as a biological mechanism that contributes to depression. We hope to define the genomic and biologic processes that results in this depression."

Irwin's ultimate goal is preventing the cascade of events that lead to depression inflammation and sleep disturbance but more information is needed first. This study is vital to providing valuable clues to how that cascade occurs, he said.

"You can't design a prevention trial unless you know the risk profile and the magnitude of the problem," Irwin said. "What makes this so exciting is that by partnering with Kaiser Permanente, we can do this work in a primary care sample, which will significantly help speed recruitment."

Study volunteers, once identified, will come in for an interview, give a blood sample that will measure levels of inflammation and provide DNA for examination. This process will be repeated every six months for two years. The volunteers also will be called once a month and asked a series of questions to determine if they are becoming depressed.

"If depression is suspected, we can bring them in immediately and evaluate them," Irwin said. "That will be a big benefit for volunteers as they'll get diagnosed and treated much sooner than they normally would be."

Irwin said he expects it will take two to three years to successfully recruit the 300 volunteers needed.

Contact: Kim Irwin
University of California - Los Angeles Health Sciences

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