Researchers Measure Neural Activity Within Breast Tumors

Researchers Measure Neural Activity Within Breast Tumors
Ewa Krawczyk/National Cancer Institute via AP
Researchers Measure Neural Activity Within Breast Tumors
Ewa Krawczyk/National Cancer Institute via AP
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A team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University has reported the first direct measurements of neural activity within tumors. Published in Scientific Reports, the results confirm a growing body of research from the last five years suggesting that cancer cells co-opt the body's neurons to rapidly grow and spread.

"In breast and prostate cancers, increasing nerve densities are associated with more aggressive tumor grades and poor patient survival," the researchers wrote. "Signaling molecules... and neurotransmitters traditionally associated with nervous system function... may play an important role in promoting cancer outgrowth."

For their study, the authors looked for electrical activity within solid breast cancer tumors in mice. Not only did they detect activity, they found clear signs that signals were emanating from the rodents' brains through the vagus nerve to the tumors. The vagus nerve is the longest, most complex cranial nerve that essentially links the brain with the middle and lower body.

The images show a tumor mass with neural fibers highlighted in red.

Prior research has found that brain cancers seem to both promote and feed off neuronal activity in the brain. Prostate, skin, pancreatic, and stomach cancers may also do the same to a lesser degree.

"There is no part of the body that isn't well innervated," Michelle Monje of the Stanford University School of Medicine said in a 2017 statement. "The nervous system... reaches every aspect of every tissue and contributes importantly to tissue development. Those growth signals are already there, so why shouldn't cancer cells co-opt them?"

Quieting those signals could slow a cancer's growth, but that's rather difficult to do and could lead to nasty side effects.

The Case Western researchers suggest that measuring tumors' electrical signals could provide an inside view into a cancer's activity, allowing doctors to better target their treatments.

"The potential exists to use the captured electrical signaling as a biomarker to identify ideal treatment windows for agents such as immunotherapy to patients when the cancer cells are in a compromised state."

Source: McCallum, G.A., Shiralkar, J., Suciu, D. et al. Chronic neural activity recorded within breast tumors. Sci Rep 10, 14824 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-71670-y


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