Each year the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) invites applications from young scientists for the Wachtel Cancer Research Award. This year’s winner of the $25,000 prize was Humsa Venkatesh of Harvard University (seen right) who, as part of the award, has just published an essay in Science Translational Research (click here to download). In her opening paragraph she asked: “How can neuronal networks direct tumour development both inside and outside the brain?” and went on to state that “the role of the nervous system in cancer progression has been largely unexplored.”
In Venkatesh’s previous research at Stanford, she found that communication between neurons and tumour cells drives overall cancer growth. She commented that “This electrical activity is a fundamental and previously unrecognised property of cancer pathophysiology that has shifted our view of malignant tissue.” Her plan is to pioneer the field of cancer neuroscience by applying a multidisciplinary approach to a broad range of cancer types.
With her doctoral supervisor Michelle Monje (seen below right), Venkatesh studied the innervation of tumours in the breast, prostate, and pancreas, and found that peripheral nerves influence cancer progression. More recently, she and her colleagues have explored how neuronal networks regulate tumour progression in small-cell lung cancer (SCLC), a lethal neuroendocrine malignancy that accounts for 200,000 deaths per annum worldwide. Using classical neuroscience techniques, they were able to test a “seed-and-soil” hypothesis to demonstrate that as cancer cells leave their primary site in the lung and metastasize to the brain, they acquire characteristics enabling continued interaction with the host organ.
They discovered there was bidirectional communication between the brain and the lung whereby neuronal activity drives tumour growth and SCLC cells remodel the microenvironment. This finding suggests there may be complex feedback loops which could be exploited from a therapeutic point of view. By employing an animal model of SCLC, Venkatesh and her team used surgical denervation to demonstrate decreased tumour formation in the lung and increased animal survival time. Since SCLC has limited treatment options and a poor prognosis, these results portend a viable strategy for therapeutic intervention.
Venkatesh is understandably optimistic about the future, concluding, “I strongly believe that by expanding our view from a cellular to a broader systems-level perspective to see cancer as a disordered state of the host organ, we have the potential to make a remarkable impact in the field of oncology.” So, by disrupting the interaction between neurons and cancer cells, it may be possible to prevent the primary tumour from metastasizing to other parts of the body. Now, that would be some breakthrough.