No, squeezing breasts does not cure cancer

You may have seen reports that squeezing breasts cures cancer.

You may have seen these reports a few days ago, at such esteemed British purveyors of science news as the Daily Mail and Huffington Post UK (no, I haven’t linked to the articles). If you looked today, you may have seen similar reports, along with similarly tacky stock images of boobs being squeezed, at news sites and blogs all over the world.

You are probably not surprised to learn that squeezing breasts, pleasant as it might be, will have absolutely no effect on anybody’s cancer.

This is yet another case of the UK media finding a jokey angle on a small science story that sends it viral overseas. I’ve seen it happen many times (which is why I enjoyed this slightly bewildered article about the phenomenon), but this time it really bothered me. That’s because usually this cycle starts with research that was already a joke (or publicity stunt) to begin with, but in this case the story was about some real science.

I suppose I also took it a bit personally because I was involved in publicising the particular nugget of research at the center of the boob squeezing madness. I’m an associate of the Public Information Committee of the American Society for Cell Biology, which means I help pick out which research from the society’s annual meeting we will promote to the press. This story, presented at the ASCB meeting by Berkeley grad student Gautham Venugopalan, was an easy choice because the science is new, interesting and medically relevant.

And no, he did not squeeze breasts and then measure cancer regression rates – that would be pointless and weird. What he actually did was compress breast cancer cells that were growing in the lab. Remarkably, a brief squeeze prompted the cancer cells to arrange themselves into highly organized spherical structures that are usually only formed by non-cancerous breast cells. The finding is intriguing because these well-behaved cells presumably still had the same cancer-causing genetic mutations that they started with. Venugopalan and his colleagues had somehow blocked the effects of those mutations.

This is precisely the kind of effect that Mina Bissell’s group, who collaborated in the research, searches for. Bissell argues that an important reason why cancer mutations do not always lead to cancer is that a cell’s behavior is strongly regulated by its “microenvironment” – its immediate surroundings, including neighboring cells and a gel-like goo called the extracellular matrix. You can see her discussing this idea in a TED talk in which she describes the experimental system that Venugopalan used. This system simulates the breast cell microenvironment using a gel enriched with extracellular matrix proteins and signaling factors. Bissell’s lab has previously shown that they can force cancerous cells to behave like normal cells by manipulating the signals that come from this simulated microenvironment.

Venugopalan took the system in a different direction, however. He is a member of Daniel Fletcher’s group, who study (among other things) the tiny mechanical forces that cells experience within their microenvironment. Neighboring cells push and pull each other in many ways as they do their various jobs; some cells are compressed as they slide between others, some cells are tugged around because they are stuck together into networks of interlocking cells. But cells are not just passively buffeted, they treat mechanical forces as sources of information, signals about what is going on around them, and in turn manipulate those signals to change their microenvironment. Such mechanical signals can influence the development and spread of cancers in a variety of ways that are still being unravelled.

The Berkeley experiments have contributed to this growing field by demonstrating that signals generated by compression can override certain cancer mutations. Understanding those signals might one day lead to drugs that could control cancers in people, not just in dishes. We even have a clue for where to look for the signals – the effects of compression disappeared when the researchers blocked the function of E-cadherin, a protein that helps glue neighboring cells together.

This work is preliminary. It hasn’t been peer reviewed yet and there’s no guarantee that the findings will translate from the dish to the clinic, but the results were still newsworthy enough for some publications that ignored the boob squeezing angle (like NatureScienceNews, Medical Daily and ironically, the Huffington Post US). You might wonder what is so bad about research being mentioned by publications that would normally not bother to cover it. You might argue that it’s a good thing for people who are hooked in by the pictures of breasts to end up reading about some science, given that most of the earlier articles described the science relatively accurately (ignoring the headlines and leads).

My response would be this travesty from MsnNOW (a tip of the hat to Ankur Chakravarthy, who found this first):

Squeezing breasts could prevent cancer, best study ever says

Getting to second base, the holy grail for hormonal boys, is now science: New research has shown that squeezing breasts could prevent malignant breast cells from causing cancer. This doesn’t give pervy dudes license to grope you on the subway, ladies, but it does mean boob-grabbing should be a regular part of your self-care routine (yes, absolutely try it DIY-style). Experiments found that physical pressure led cells back to normal growth patterns, and that even after compression was no longer applied, the malignant cells stopped growing. Spread the word, boob-lovers of the world.

This is the Chinese whisper effect of viral news, with each new aggregator leaving out more and more context until you’re left with only an echo of the original science.