Cancer cells hijack normal biological processes, allowing them to multiply. For example, tumors spur construction of new blood vessels, building themselves “highways” to supply nutrients.
Researchers have known about cancer’s blood vessel infiltration for decades, but it was only in the past few years that Stanford Medicine scientists and their colleagues discovered that tumors don’t just tap the body’s highway system; they can also infiltrate and exploit its “telecommunications.”
To put it in physiologic terms, tumors don’t just grow blood vessels; they also wire themselves into the nervous system. Certain brain cancers form working electrical connections with nearby nerves, then use the nerves’ electrical signals for their own purposes, the research has shown. The latest findings, published Nov. 1 in Nature, demonstrate that these tumors can even hijack the biological machinery of brain plasticity — which enables learning — to drive their own growth.
The discoveries have opened a novel field of medicine called cancer neuroscience. It offers new opportunities to target some of the deadliest forms of cancer, including brain tumors that are almost always lethal. Scientists are especially intrigued by the cancer treatment potential of FDA-approved drugs developed for other neurological disorders, such as epilepsy. It turns out that several such medications interrupt neural signals now understood to fuel certain cancers.
“Since 2015, when we first published that neuronal activity actually drives the growth of cancer in multiple brain tumor types, there has been a very exciting explosion of studies on these interactions,” said Michelle Monje, MD, PhD, a professor of neurology and neurological sciences and senior author of the new Nature study, whose team’s discoveries form the foundation of cancer neuroscience. “This is clearly a major set of interactions crucial to tumor biology that we had missed.”
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