Manipulating the Nervous System to Combat Cancer: The Latest Breakthroughs
According to Jeremy Borniger, an assistant professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on New York's Long Island, growing a tumor is a lot like growing a new organ. A tumor may appear to be a mass of cells, but it's actually fed by blood vessels, communicates with the immune system, and, like any other organ, connects to the body's nervous system. For decades, scientists have been exploring ways to treat cancer by manipulating a tumor's blood supply and changing the way it interacts with the immune system. Now, a new area of research is emerging, focused on the role of nerves in cancer.
The nervous system is not just playing a passive role in cancer, says Borniger. Instead, it's essential for all phases of cancer development, from initiation through to therapeutic resistance and responses to therapy. Many cancer patients suffer from chronic fatigue, sleep disruption, appetite changes, and brain fog, all of which are related to problems with the nervous system. Borniger is working to understand whether these symptoms are caused by cancer therapy or cancer itself.
Studies on brain tumors have shown that cancer can affect brain circuits, and the more tinkering the tumor does, the more dangerous it becomes. Scientists are now asking how common it is for nerves to directly communicate with other types of cancer cells. What's already clear, however, is that when treatments block the communication between nerve and tumor cells, it drastically alters the tumor's growth, the spread of cancer within the body, and its response to treatment.
Borniger is excited about the potential of manipulating the nervous system to combat cancer. It's amazing that one tiny nucleus in the brain can have such a strong effect on physiology and tumor growth. The idea is to figure out how these things are linked and what knobs and dials to turn to restore normal functioning and block the bad signaling that promotes cancer.
While most of this work has been in animals, early trials are starting with already-approved medications like beta blockers that may affect the release of chemicals from the nervous system, even in tumors like breast cancer. Future treatments may include electrical stimulation to better understand and directly affect the body's wiring system, adding "good signals" to counteract the bad.
The bottom line, according to Borniger, is that tumors are not floating in a vacuum, but are integrated into the body's systems. It's becoming increasingly evident that we need to start listening to how the body responds to things and not just what's happening in isolation. Tapping into the nervous system is one of the best ways to understand what's going on and to try to fix the problem. By manipulating the nervous system, we may be able to develop more effective treatments for cancer.
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