THE nervous system plays a bigger role in the onset and spread of cancer than previously thought, a University of Newcastle professor says.
Professor Hubert Hondermarck, a biochemistry researcher at the University of Newcastle, led a pioneering study that confirmed how the nervous system is actively implicated in the growth of cancer.
He said while tumour cells were known to invade nerves, up until now it was thought the nerves themselves were not involved in the initiation of cancer and its progression.
“The nerves are getting into human tumours, and they stimulate the growth of the cancer,” he said.
“There is a cross talk between nerves and cancer cells. The cancer cells are able to attract nerves, and once the nerves are inside the cancer, they stimulate the growth of cancer cells.
“The more nerves there are, the more aggressive a tumour is.”
The phenomenon has been demonstrated by several teams, including Professor Hondermarck’s, in prostate, gastric, breast and pancreatic tumours, leading the research team to suspect it is relatively widespread.
Given the nerve dependence, they believe it relates to the body’s failed regeneration process.
The study has just been published in the international cancer journal Cancer Cell.
Professor Hondermarck said the next challenge was to translate the laboratory finding into clinical practice.
“In the future, anti-cancer drugs could potentially block the stimulatory impact of nerves,” he said.
“There is also potential to develop diagnostic and prognostic tools for cancer, either by determining tumour aggressiveness through the presence of nerves, or using neurotrophic growth factors as a blood biomarker to signify a cancer is starting to develop.”
Professor Hondermarck was reluctant to call the research a “breakthrough”, but said it was “one step forward” to better understanding cancer.
“There are still things we don’t know, but once you identify a new mechanism, you can propose a new treatment,” he said. “It is the basic science of cancer.”