What’s with the perverse link ‘tween cancer and brain disease?

Two weeks ago I posted a somewhat facetious piece about an epidemiological study that found lower risk of cancer in people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and, inversely, lower risk of Alzheimer’s in those with cancer. That’s not just converse but perverse as well.

Now The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research reports that Katherine Burdick, PhD, looked at the relation between the proto-oncogene (a gene that, when mutated, can contribute to cancer) MET and schizophrenia. There are family data that suggest that having a higher risk for schizophrenia lowers a person’s risk of cancer.

Serious mental illness or debility is a lousy trade-off against cancer. But these are not choices you make; they’re biological outcomes that have a rather extraordinary association. The big issue here is that gene and biologic functions have effects that bridge what appear to be very different roles: brain function and cancer. There are clues.

“The results add to the growing evidence suggesting an intriguing relationship between cancer-related genes and schizophrenia susceptibility,” the scientists wrote.

It remains unclear exactly how the gene actually may increase the risk for schizophrenia while protecting against some forms of cancer. However, evidence from research on MET in autism provides some insight. Specifically, it is known that MET is activated (increased activity) when tumors develop and can increase the chance that cancer cells multiply and infiltrate other tissue.

The activation of MET during normal neurodevelopment is critical to ensure that neurons grow and migrate to position themselves correctly in the human cortex. In autism, it appears that while the brain is developing, reduced MET activity results in structural and functional changes in the brain that may increase a person’s risk for developing the disorder. The Feinstein investigators speculate that the same risk-inducing mechanism may be at play in its link to schizophrenia.

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