The pro-social neurohormone oxytocin reverses the actions of the stress hormone cortisol in human ovarian carcinoma cells in vitro

Amanda Mankarious, Foram Dave, George Pados, Dimitris Tsolakidis, Yori Gidron, Yefei Pang, Peter Thomas, Marcia Hall, Emmanouil Karteris

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The journey patients with ovarian cancer travel from non-specific symptoms causing delayed diagnosis through surgery and chemotherapy, culminating in a 5-year survival rate of 43%, must have a profound and detrimental psychological impact on patients. Emerging studies link higher levels of oxytocin (OT) and increased social support, an independent prognostic factor in cancer, with a moderating effect on stress. In contrast, there is a known association of tumour cell proliferation with elevated cortisol (stress hormone) levels. We hypothesise therefore that there is cross-talk between cortisol and oxytocin at a molecular level. Three ovarian cancer cell lines, used as in vitro models, were treated with cortisol at concentrations mimicking physiological stress in vivo in the presence or absence of OT. OT reduced cell proliferation and migration, induced apoptosis and autophagy for all three cell lines, partially reversing the effects of cortisol. Quantitative RT-PCR of tissue taken from ovarian cancer patients revealed that the glucocorticoid receptor (splice variant GR-P) and OT receptor (OTR) were significantly upregulated compared to controls. Tissue microarray revealed that the expression of GRα was lower in the ovarian cancer samples compared to normal tissue. OT is also shown to drive alternative splicing of the GR gene and cortisol-induced OTR expression. OT was able to transactivate GR in the presence of cortisol, thus providing further evidence of cross-talk in vitro. These data provide explanations for why social support might help distressed ovarian cancer patients and help define novel hypotheses regarding potential therapeutic interventions in socially isolated patients.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1805-1814
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Oncology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Cortisol
  • Glucocorticoid receptors
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Oxytocin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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