The interplay of mental health, the gut and cancer

Part of new research projects supported by UM Ignite Program

Last month, the U of M launched its Ignite program to support bold and high-risk research explorations — providing $350,000 per year for three years to five collaborative research projects.

Among these is a multidisciplinary project led by Versha Banerji, an associate professor in the department of internal medicine.

The project, titled “An interdisciplinary approach to understanding how mental health, nutrition, multi-omics, and the microbiome interact in CLL to improve patient care” delves into the intricate interplay between mental health, gut health and cancer.

At the heart of Banerji’s research project lies a profound realization — the journey of cancer patients encompasses far more than just the diagnosis and treatment of the disease itself.

“We are now faced with supporting them through this journey in multiple different ways,” she said.

Recognizing the holistic nature of patient care, Banerji’s project aims to address the myriad factors that influence an individual’s well-being throughout their cancer journey. The project’s scope extends beyond traditional biomedical approaches, incorporating elements of nutrition, mental health and activity to create personalized treatment plans for each patient’s unique needs.

“The project specifically is to bring together a community of researchers that has not been brought together before,” Banerji said.

A key focus of the research involves exploring the connection between mental health and cancer progression through a multidisciplinary approach.

The team aims to gather real-time data on patients’ mental well-being in a naturalistic setting, free from the biases inherent in traditional clinical assessments. Banerji explained that this approach allows for a deeper understanding of patients’ psychological experiences, untethered from the context of medical appointments.

Researcher in the department of clinical health psychology Renée El-Gabalawy, among others, is helping to develop questionnaires designed to capture the nuances of patients’ mental health journeys by adopting an approach that minimizes intrusion into their daily lives.

Another critical aspect of the project involves investigating the role of the gut microbiome in cancer progression and treatment response. This segment is led by Heather Armstrong, assistant professor in the department of internal medicine.

“The microbiome piece is something that is not often looked at in cancer,” Banerji said, “but [it] is gaining momentum in potentially creating information that we could act upon early.”

Through comprehensive analysis of stool samples and blood plasma, the researchers aim to explain how the microbiome influences cancer progression and how it responds to treatment. By integrating data on the microbiome, immune system and tumour cells, they hope to identify markers that can predict patient progression risk levels and inform personalized treatment strategies.

One of the challenges Banerji foresees lies in integrating diverse datasets and methodologies to derive meaningful insights.

With a multidisciplinary team comprising experts in genetics, proteomics and health services research, Banerji is spearheading efforts to bridge the gap between disparate fields and create a cohesive framework for data analysis.

“It’s an innovative way to potentially create prediction models of care, so that you can identify which patients are best suited for physician-led care or some that are suited for nurse-led care,” Banerji said.

Banerji highlighted the potential cost savings associated with early profiling of cancer patients, emphasizing that while the upfront testing costs may seem substantial, they have the potential to lead to significant savings in the long run. By appropriately directing resources based on early profiling, health-care systems can mitigate future expenses associated with complications.

Looking ahead, Banerji envisions a future where personalized medicine is not just a buzzword but a reality.

When asked about her inspiration for delving into this project, Banerji shared a personal story that ignited her dedication. She recounted the impact of her grandmother’s battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Witnessing firsthand the challenges of cancer and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of exploring holistic health-care approaches for Banerji.

For Banerji, personalized medicine entails more than targeting specific mutations. It involves harnessing a wealth of patient data to tailor care plans that optimize outcomes.

She hopes the project will lead to the development of predictive models that can guide clinical decision-making and optimize patient care.

“I have the advantage of being a physician and actually being intimately involved in my patients’ lives,” she said.

“The number-one motivator for me is improving the quality of care and the quality of their lives.”