WSU researchers to study cancer risk in night shift workers

A sleep researcher prepares a patient for a sleep study.

SPOKANE, Wash. – Researchers at the Washington State University Sleep and Performance Research Center will spend the next two years investigating disruptions to the cellular clock mechanisms in night shift workers thanks to nearly $360,000 in grants. The goal is to find ways to prevent and mitigate the increased cancer risk in people working nonstandard hours, who account for more than 15% of the U.S. workforce.

Funded by the Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment (CARE) Fund for $197,370 and matched by the Health Sciences & Services Authority of Spokane County (HSSA) for $162,130, the research will build on the center’s previous published study examining the impact of a night shift work schedule on cancer risk. 

“We are very grateful to the Andy Hill CARE Fund and HSSA for supporting this important translational research to help us better understand the mechanisms of elevated cancer high risk in night shift workers,” said Brieann Satterfield, lead investigator of the study and assistant professor for the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. “Through this study, we hope to identify biological mechanisms we can target to develop countermeasures to mitigate the long-term health impact of working nonstandard hours.” 

The Andy Hill CARE Fund is a public-private partnership that incentivizes organizations to secure matching funds to increase the impact of cancer research. HSSA, based in Spokane County with a focus on health sciences investments, research and promoting public health, provided the match.  

“In urban and rural communities across Washington, people working night shift schedules fill important roles, including in healthcare and other frontline positions,” said Laura Flores Cantrell, CARE Fund executive director. “The CARE Fund is pleased that this population health grant will support research to inform solutions to reduce cancer risk for those working nonstandard hours.”

“Investing in research that leads to diagnosis, treatments and cures is the mission of the HSSA,” said Jason Thackston, HSSA board chair. “This investment allows us to leverage the state’s cancer research fund with our local funds to achieve this purpose, and we are grateful for this opportunity.”

While the center’s previous research simulated day and night shift schedules in non-shift work participants, this new study will examine real-world night shift workers along with control participants who work day shifts. 

The researchers will provide 34 participants with wrist activity trackers that will measure their sleep patterns at home for a week. At the end of the week, after completing their last work shift, participants will come to the sleep laboratory at the WSU Spokane campus. There they will participate in a 24-hour constant routine protocol, during which they will be kept awake and have blood samples taken every three hours under strictly controlled circumstances. This will allow the researchers to measure the participants’ internal biological rhythms without interference from external influences. 

Researchers will then analyze participants’ blood to investigate markers of DNA damage, as well as the 24-hour expression patterns of genes responsible for biological rhythms and DNA damage repair. Night and day shift workers will be compared, and the data will be used to investigate misalignment between DNA damage and repair processes and to search for molecular targets to develop novel treatments.

“Cancer prevention and treatment interventions are more effective and have fewer side effects if timed optimally with regard to circadian rhythms, but this becomes more difficult to achieve with shift workers whose internal rhythms may be highly desynchronized,” said Hans Van Dongen, co-investigator of the study, professor in the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and director of the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center. “This study will provide us with critical new information about workers at increased risk of cancer to ultimately figure out the timed application of cancer therapies.”

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