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Open Access Short Report

Tryptophan degradation in women with breast cancer: a pilot study

Debra E Lyon1*, Jeanne M Walter1, Angela R Starkweather2, Christine M Schubert3 and Nancy L McCain2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Family and Community Health Nursing, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing, 1100 East Leigh Street, Richmond, Virginia, 23298, USA

2 Department of Adult Health and Nursing Systems, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing, 1100 East Leigh Street, Richmond, Virginia, 23298, USA

3 Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Air Force Institute of Technology, 2950 Hobson Way, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, 45433, USA

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BMC Research Notes 2011, 4:156  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-4-156

Published: 26 May 2011



Altered tryptophan metabolism and indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase activity are linked to cancer development and progression. In addition, these biological factors have been associated with the development and severity of neuropsychiatric syndromes, including major depressive disorder. However, this biological mechanism associated with both poor disease outcomes and adverse neuropsychiatric symptoms has received little attention in women with breast cancer. Therefore, a pilot study was undertaken to compare levels of tryptophan and other proteins involved in tryptophan degradation in women with breast cancer to women without cancer, and secondarily, to examine levels in women with breast caner over the course of chemotherapy.


Blood samples were collected from women with a recent diagnosis of breast cancer (n = 33) before their first cycle of chemotherapy and after their last cycle of chemotherapy. The comparison group (n = 24) provided a blood sample prior to breast biopsy. Plasma concentrations of tryptophan, kynurenine, and tyrosine were determined. The kynurenine to tryptophan ratio (KYN/TRP) was used to estimate indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase activity. On average, the women with breast cancer had lower levels of tryptophan, elevated levels of kynurenine and tyrosine and an increased KYN/TRP ratio compared to women without breast cancer. There was a statistically significant difference between the two groups in the KYN/TRP ratio (p = 0.036), which remained elevated in women with breast cancer throughout the treatment trajectory.


The findings of this pilot study suggest that increased tryptophan degradation may occur in women with early-stage breast cancer. Given the multifactorial consequences of increased tryptophan degradation in cancer outcomes and neuropsychiatric symptom manifestation, this biological mechanism deserves broader attention in women with breast cancer.