Skip to main content

Cross-Disciplinary Science in Action

A colorful visualization of cortisol interactions. The image is meant to convey the idea of how tiny the steroids are.

Stress can have a huge impact on your health. Everything from your mood to your blood pressure can be negatively impacted by high amounts of stress, but there could be other, deadlier consequences to chronic of stress. Scientists have been studying the possible link between stress and cancer for a long time. For some people, simply hearing the word cancer can cause stress and agitation. That’s just a small amount of stress. Imagine living in a home where you fear for your safety day in and day out. Researchers at NCSA and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (U. of I.) have studied this kind of stress and have found a potential link between aggressive lung cancer and patients who live in high-crime areas.

The study, which can be found in the journal Cancer Research Communications, explores why there is a higher incidence of lung cancer in black men compared to white men, despite the fact that Black men smoke less than white men and often start smoking later in life. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign food science and human nutrition professor Zeynep Madak-Erdogan, led the research with University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health health policy and administration professor Sage Kim, the principal investigator of the project. NCSA Research Scientist Aiman Soliman worked closely with Madak-Erdogan to develop a unique methodology incorporating novel spatial analysis for the study.

Techniques that Dr. Soliman’s group developed enabled us to perform reliable molecular analysis in a very small amount of very precious clinical samples.

–Zeynep Madak-Erdogan, professor, U. of I.

Definitively linking cancer to stress is difficult. Isolating what causes cancer to thrive requires a lot of careful study and elimination of other factors. For example, if you’re stressed, you might engage in coping habits to make yourself feel better in the moment, like smoking more or skipping exercise. Madak-Erdogan’s team focused their study on glucocorticoids, steroid hormones they hoped could bring some insight into how stress affects cancer.

The research involved careful comparison of genes and tumor cells; this is a highly meticulous study of extremely tiny objects, and Madak-Erdogan’s team had to make these comparisons with thousands of spatial samples within each tumor. NCSA’s Soliman specializes in geospatial big data, something you might not think would be connected to cancer research. But he was able to use his expertise to help Madak-Erdogan’s team “map” the tumors.

“NCSA played a lead role in adapting techniques that are usually used for mapping cities and landscapes to draw maps for the expression of genes in tissues at the micro-scale,” said Soliman. “The novelty of the developed methods is that they unlock the importance of location within a tumor by identifying sets of two or more genes that are expressed simultaneously in the same area. Using these novel techniques, Dr. Madak-Erdogan and her team were able to evaluate the connection between stress-related hormones and genes related to the proliferation of lung cancer.”

This unique cross-disciplinary approach to studying cancer not only assisted Madak-Erdogan’s team. The ultimate hope is that Soliman’s techniques can be adapted to assist in a whole range of health studies.

You can read more about this research in the original story here: Study links neighborhood violence, lung cancer progression

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign provides supercomputing, expertise and advanced digital resources for the nation’s science enterprise. At NCSA, University of Illinois faculty, staff, students and collaborators from around the globe use innovative resources to address research challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been assisting many of the world’s industry giants for over 35 years by bringing industry, researchers and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.

Back to top