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Targeting Nerves To Stop Mesothelioma Growth

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Researchers have spent countless hours searching for an effective way to keep mesothelioma cells from migrating and growing. They have looked at biomarkers within the cells, improved radiation techniques and stronger chemotherapy, with each approach falling short of the breakthrough needed to extend survival. Now, researchers are turning their attention to nerve cells as a target for halting cancer growth.

Researchers from across the globe have begun building on research from the 80s from Johns Hopkins University where alcohol injections were given to ease the pain in pancreatic cancer patients, according to an Oct. 18 article in the New Scientist. In the original research, when advanced-stage pancreatic cancer patients were injected with alcohol in the nerves around the tumors pressing on the spine, not only did the patients find pain relief but they also gained (on average) three more months of life.

At the time, the scientists chalked up the extended survival to the mind-body connection theory that by relieving the pain the patients were in a better mood and were more active allowing them to tolerate and respond to standard treatments better. Research over the years, points instead to the ability of cancer cells to travel along the nervous system and metastasize to other organs and the brain.

Gustavo Ayala, University of Texas Health Science Center
Expert Insight
“If you don’t take care of the nerves, you’re not going to cure cancer ”

“It’s not entirely clear why, but we know that nerves release stimulatory molecules such as neurotransmitters,” says Hubert Hondermarck, a cancer neurobiologist at the University of Newcastle in Australia, in a March 27 press release from the University. “Cancer cells receive these and use them for their benefit, growing, multiplying, migrating, invading and creating metastasis – there is therefore a nerve dependence for cancer cells.”

Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer that can multiply and spread quickly making it impossible to treat. Metastasis, according to the National Cancer Society, is the cause of 90 percent of all cancer deaths. Needless to say, stopping the spread of cancer cells is critical for improving survival in mesothelioma patients.

Although nerves are the target of the research, those targeted must be carefully selected, since destroying any nerve cells can have far-reaching implications such as affecting the heart, digestion or the ability to feel heat and pain.

The involuntary or “autonomic” nervous system’s opposing functions, rest and fight or flight, help drive the target for treatment in cancer or other diseases. For example, targeting nerve receptors involved in fight-or-flight responses can aid heart patients, whereas looking at nerves that relax the body could halt the free flow of cancer cells.

“It’s exciting,” says Claire Magnon, a cancer biologist at the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission near Paris. “This is the beginning of a new era in cancer research.”

Further study by Hondermarck, and others looking at additional cancer types, led Hondermarck to conclude that the interaction of the cancer cells and the nerves is “relatively widespread,” indicating the research is beneficial for many types of cancer.

Close to 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year. The mesothelioma community always sits up and takes note when a breakthrough of such significant proportions, like this, leads researchers to a different approach for treating cancer.

Read the full study in the March 13 issue of Cancer Cell.

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