New research from Monash University has suggested that anti-stress drugs, known as beta-blockers, could slow the spread of cancer in the body.

The study, which was published in Clinical Cancer Research, marks the first ever study marking that beta-blockers stop cancer cells spreading through the body in women with breast cancer.

In the randomised controlled trial, 64 women were either given propranolol - a beta-blocker used to treat cardiac disease and anxiety disorders - or a placebo, and were then evaluated from the time of diagnosis until after the breast cancer surgery.

Results from the investigation showed that just one week of beta-blockers therapy inhibited cancer invasion, having a protective effect against the spread of the cancer.

As a results of this, the researchers believe the findings support the need for larger clinical trials that can prove that beta-blockers improve survival after a cancer diagnosis.

One of the key researchers on the project, associate professor Erica Sloan said “We know that stress activates the ‘fight-or-flight’ response and, for patients with cancer, the time from diagnosis to surgery can be both stressful and emotional.

“Our research discovered that the ‘fight-or-flight response’ can increase metastasis, helping cancer spread through the body. We harnessed that knowledge by repurposing existing drugs. Our goal was to see if we could stop cancer cells spreading in the body. We found that beta-blockers – which halt the stress response – stopped the cancer invading.’’

The study was funded by the ANZCA Research Foundation, Perpetual Trustees and the US National Institutes of Health, and conducted at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.