Oxytocin, dubbed “the love hormone,” has for years been known by scientists to facilitate bonding between mothers and newborn babies and between men and women in relationships.

But a new laboratory study led by Dr. Ruth Feldman from Bar-Ilan University and recently published in Biological Psychiatry has found that giving oxytocin to fathers increases their parental engagement, with similar effects observed in their infants.

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that plays an important role in the formation of attachment bonds.

Studies have shown that when given as a nasal spray, it increases trust, empathy and social reciprocity.

It has even been shown in some studies to alleviate autism.

In this study, researchers examined whether administering oxytocin to the father enhances physiological and behavioral processes that support social engagement with his infant and improves his parenting. They also examined whether oxytocin effects on the parent's behavior would affect related physiological and behavioral processes in the infant.

Thirty-five fathers and their five-month- old infants were observed twice – once after oxytocin administration and once after given a harmless, useless placebo. The fathers received the nasal sprays in a solitary room while their infants were cared for in another room.

After 40 minutes, fathers and infants were reunited and engaged in face-to-face play that was micro-coded for the parent’s and the child’s social behavior.

Levels of oxytocin in the saliva were measured from the fathers and infants both before and several times after giving the drug.

“We found that after oxytocin administration, fathers’ salivary oxytocin rose dramatically – more than tenfold – and similar increases were found in the infants’ oxytocin.

After getting the neuropeptide, key parenting behavior, such as their touching of the babies and social reciprocity, increased, but infant social behavior, including social gaze and exploratory behavior, increased as well,” explained Feldman.

“We should not be surprised that social bonding in male parents is affected by many of the same biological mechanisms that have been identified for females,” commented Dr. John Krystal, editor of the journal. “The question arising from this study is whether there is a way to harness the power of oxytocin to promote paternal engagement with their infants in families where this is a problem.”

Feldman concluded, “Such findings have salient implications for the potential treatment of young children at risk for social difficulties, including premature infants; siblings of children with autism; or children of depressed mothers, without the need to administer drugs to a young infant.”

Cancer stem cells leading to kidney cancer identified

Scientists have isolated cancer stem cells that lead to the growth of Wilms’ tumors – a type of pediatric cancer of the kidneys. The researchers have used these cancer stem cells to test a new therapeutic approach that one day might be used to treat some of the more aggressive types of this disease.

Prof. Benjamin Dekel, head of the pediatric stem cell research institute and a senior physician at the Sheba Medical Center and Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine, recently published his findings in EMBO Molecular Medicine.

“In earlier studies, cancer stem cells were isolated from adult cancers of the breast, pancreas and brain, but so far much less is known about stem cells in pediatric cancers,” he said. “Cancer stem cells contain the complete genetic machinery necessary to start, sustain and propagate tumor growth, and they are often referred to as cancer-initiating cells. As such, they not only represent a useful system to study cancer development but they also serve as a way to study new drug targets and potential treatments designed to stop the growth and spread of different types of cancer. We have demonstrated for the first time the presence of cancer stem cells in a type of tumor that is often found in the kidneys of young children.”

Wilms’ tumors are the most prevalent type of tumors found in the kidneys of children. While many patients respond well if the tumors are surgically removed early and if patients are given chemotherapy, recurrences may occur and the cancer can spread to other tissues, increasing the risks to the health of the patient.

Conventional chemotherapy is toxic to all cells in the body and, if given to children, may lead to the development of secondary cancers when they reach adulthood. Scientists are looking for ways to ensure that drugs are targeted specifically to tumor cells; some tumor cells may be more important to eradicate than others.

The researchers were able to remove parts of tumors from cancer patients and graft them into mice, leading to the growth of human tumors in mice. When the cancer stem cells were identified in these tumors, it was shown that only the cancer stem cells and not the other cancer cells led to the development of new ones when they were grafted into additional mice. This process could be repeated multiple times, and the animals could be used to study the development of cancer and test the action of potential new cancer drugs against Wilms.

“We identified several biomarkers, including molecules that are on the cell surface, cell signaling molecules and micro-RNAs that make it possible to distinguish between cancer stem cells or cancer- initiating cells and the rest of the cancer cells that are less likely to lead to cancer. In further experiments, we were able to show that an antibody drug that targets one such biomarker, the neural cell adhesion molecule, was able to either almost completely or in some cases completely eradicate the tumors that we induced in mice,” said Dekel. “This preliminary result suggests that the cancer stem cells that we have identified, isolated and propagated may serve as a useful tool to look for new drug targets as well as new drugs for the treatment of Wilms’ tumors.”

Further work is needed to identify more precisely how the antibody drug used in the study affects cancer stem cell populations and to test the long-term suitability of the antibody drug to treat humans.

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