“The Lower Threshold” phenomenon in tumor cells toward endogenous digitalis-like compounds: Responsible for tumorigenesis?

Heidrun Weidemann
Department of Oncology, Hadassah-Hebrew University, Medical Center, Jerusalem, Israel.


Since their first discovery as potential anti-cancer drugs decades ago, there is increasing evidence that digitalis-like compounds (DLC) have anti-tumor effects. Less is known about endogenous DLC (EDLC) metabolism and regulation. As stress hormones synthesized in and secreted from the adrenal gland, they likely take part in the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. In a previous study, we revealed reduced EDLC concentrations in plasma and organs from immune-compromised animals and proposed that a similar situation of a deregulated HPA axis with “adrenal EDLF exhaustion” may contribute to tumorigenesis in chronic stress situations. Here, we put forward the hypothesis that a lowered EDLC response threshold of tumor cells as compared with normal cells increases the risk of tumorigenesis, especially in those individuals with reduced EDLC plasma concentrations after chronic stress exposure. We will evaluate this hypothesis by (a) summarizing the effects of different DLC concentrations on tumor as compared with normal cells and (b) reviewing some essential differences in the Na/K-ATPase of tumor as compared with normal cells (isoform pattern, pump activity, mutations of other signalosome receptors). We will conclude that (1) tumor cells, indeed, seem to have their individual “physiologic” EDLC response range that already starts at pmolar levels and (2) that individuals with markedly reduced (pmolar) EDLC plasma levels are predisposed to cancer because these EDLC concentrations will predominantly stimulate the proliferation of tumor cells. Finally, we will summarize preliminary results from our department supporting this hypothesis.

Keywords: Adrenal exhaustion, endogenous digitalis-like compounds, isoforms, Na/K-ATPase, stress, threshold, tumorigenesis.