Titles and Affiliations

Professor, Division of Hematology-Oncology
Department of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences
David Geffen School of Medicine

Research area

Studying the biological pathways that link psychological stress and breast cancer outcomes, with a focus on the nervous and immune systems. 


Patients who have been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer experience many forms of stress including psychological stress which can activate the immune response and cause inflammation—this negatively impacts breast cancer outcomes. Compelling evidence has emerged that indicates that the immune response and inflammation play a role in tumor initiation, progression, and metastatic spread. Drs. Cole and Bower are focusing on the role of the nervous and immune systems in translating stress from brain to body. These studies aim to define new “positive neurobiology” pathways that can be translated into clinical interventions. Through this work, they hope to establish new paradigms for blocking stress in order to promote both the quality and potentially the length of breast cancer survivorship.  

Progress Thus Far

Drs. Cole and Bower are conducting several interrelated lines of research into the association between psychosocial stressors and tumor characteristics in women with early-stage breast cancer. This includes examination of neural processes that link chronic stress and inflammatory processes relevant for tumor progression, as well as intervention studies to reduce stress and identify neuroendocrine pathways that impact tumor biology. Building on their recent findings that stress-induced changes in tumor biology can be blocked by stimulating the brain's reward system, they have established a laboratory model system to test how stimulation impacts breast cancer growth and metastasis. In addition, they have developed and optimized an online version of their mindfulness-based intervention for breast cancer survivors. They have demonstrated that this intervention is effective in reducing depression, enhancing well-being, and improving tumor-relevant immune processes in younger breast cancer survivors.  

What’s next

The team will continue to optimize the models they developed and determine whether manipulation of the reward system can impact the propensity towards metastasis and how neural and cellular mechanisms are involved. These studies will ultimately help to refine clinical interventions that have the potential to enhance reward-promoting effects in breast cancer patients. They will also expand the use of novel digital approaches for delivering behavioral interventions to more effectively reach a broad and diverse range of women with breast cancer. These lines of research are designed to establish new parameters for blocking the stress effect in the context of human breast cancer. 


Steven W. Cole, PhD is a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology-Oncology at the UCLA School of Medicine. His research maps the molecular pathways by which social and environmental factors influence the activity of human, viral, and tumor genomes. He pioneered the use of functional genomics approaches in social and behavioral research and has mapped the signal transduction pathways by which social factors enhance replication of viruses (e.g., HIV-1 and HHV-8), alter expression of immune response genes (e.g., IL-6 and Interferon-beta), and up-regulate expression of pro-metastatic genes by human breast and ovarian cancer cells. His research uses computational modeling strategies to identify transcription factors that mediate socio-environmental influences on gene expression and genetic polymorphisms that modify those effects to create Gene x Environment interactions. Dr. Cole is member of the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Norman Cousins Center, the UCLA Molecular Biology Institute, and the NCI Network on Biobehavioral Pathways in Cancer, and he holds a joint appointment in UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences.

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Play for P.I.N.K. Award/The Estée Lauder Companies' Breast Cancer Campaign Award