Nerves play an important role in both the development and spread of prostate tumours, researchers have found.

According to the new findings, branches of the nervous system that control involuntary functions play an important role in the development of prostate cancer, the second most common form of cancer in men.

While previous studies have established that tumours grow and migrate along nerve fibres, the role of nerves in cancer growth and progression was not known.

The new study, conducted both on mice and human tissue samples, thus focused on the ‘autonomic nervous system’ responsible for controlling functions such as heart beat and digestion.

In an analysis of samples from 43 patients with prostate cancer, researchers found that nerve density in such patients was high as compared to those not afflicted by the disease.

Likewise, to check tumor development in mice, the researchers injected them with human prostate cancer cells.

The researchers saw that the tumors were now infiltrated with nerve fibres. When the nerves were chemically destroyed, it inhibited the development of tumours in the prostate, suggesting that blocking certain receptors on the nerves could prevent the cancer from invading nearby lymph nodes.

“Since there might be similarities between the haematopoeitic stem cell niche and the stem cell niches found in cancer, we thought that sympathetic nerves might also have a role in tumour development,” study’s lead researcher, Paul Frenette, a stem-cell expert and professor of medicine at the Ruth L. and David S. Gottesman Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Research at Einstein said. “It turns out that in prostate cancer, not only are sympathetic nerves involved, but so too are parasympathetic nerves.”

Why do new nerves make cancers more aggressive?
Nerve growth is also a crucial step in repairing wounds. Researchers speculate that the body perceives cancer and its associated tissue damage and organ and body inflammation as a wound that never heals, triggering the process of wound healing. “Nerves play a role in wound repair,” says David Rowley, a cancer researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, “so it stands to reason that nerves also play a role in a tumour’s environment.”

The findings of the study are published in the journal Science.

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