Nerves help the spread of cancer: study

Drugs that target the body’s nerves could become a new way to treat cancer, an Australian biochemist says.


Researchers at the University of Newcastle have found evidence of a physical link between the nervous system and cancer tumours.

“We and other teams in the world have found there is a direct cross-talk between nerves and cancer cells,” Professor Hubert Hondermarck said.

“And the more nerves there are, the more aggressive a tumour is.”

The research shows cancer growth is dependent on the presence of nerves.

“The cancer cells attract nerves into the tumours and then the nerves will liberate molecules like neurotransmitters which will stimulate cancer growth and dissemination. Therefore there is a physical link between the tumour and the nervous system,” Prof Hondermarck told AAP on Monday.

The phenomenon has been demonstrated in the spread of numerous cancers, including prostate and pancreatic.

“We have also published a study which we show breast cancer is also invaded by nerves,” Prof Hondermarck said.

Nerves are everywhere in the body, the lens in the eye and cartilage are the only parts of the body that have no nerves.

Therefore, “we have reason to believe that a cure is in most human tumours” even if it is not demonstrated at this stage, Prof Hondermarck said.

“If we can inhibit the effect of nerves then we can block cancer growth and metastasis,” he said.

“Inhibiting the effect of nerves is probably going to be made by preventing the nerves from getting into the tumours,” Prof Hondermarck said.

The challenge now, he says, is to translate their laboratory findings into clinical practice and the development of new drugs that stop the nerves from getting into the tumours.

“In preclinical models we looked at targeting neurotrophic growth factors to deprive the tumour from nerve infiltration,” Prof Hondermarck adds.

“In the future, anti-cancer drugs could potentially block the stimulatory impact of nerves.”

The research, published in medical journal Cancer Cell, also supports a theory that cancer and regeneration are linked.

“We don’t know exactly what it is but maybe we can speculate that cancer is an attempt by the body to regenerate something, to repair something and that fails ultimately,” Prof Hondermarck said.