Cancer: researchers find the brain plays a key role in its development

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Advanced-cancer caused by neurons? This is the amazing discovery of a team of researchers from Inserm. In a study published in the journal Nature, it proves that the brain contributes to the development of the disease. A discovery that paves the way for new therapeutic pathways.

This is a major discovery in cancer research. In a study published in the journal Nature on May 15, a team of researchers from Inserm, led by Claire Magnon, announced that they had shown that the brain is significantly involved in the development of a cancerous tumour, at least for prostate cancers.

According to their research, the organ produces neurons, also called nerve cells, which can migrate through the bloodstream, feed the tumour and multiply metastases. An important discovery that could lead to the creation of new treatments.

Neurons found in patients ' tumours

In 2013, Claire Magnon had already highlighted the infiltration of nerve fibres into prostate tumours. These were associated with the occurrence and progression of cancer. Other studies had then expanded this discovery to other cancers. Based on this progress, the researcher decided to dig deeper into the role of neurons in the formation of this nervous network.

She studied the tumours of 52 prostate cancer patients. And its discovery is just as important as the previous one: immature nerve cells producing a protein called doublecortin (DCX), usually produced for the creation or renewal of neurons, are present in the tumour where they mature. A presence that, according to the authors of the study, promotes the aggravation of the disease and the proliferation of metastases. "This amazing discovery attests to the presence of DCX+ neuronal progenitors outside the adult brain. And our work shows that they participate well in the formation of new neurons in tumours," explains Claire Magnon in a press release.

An unexpected migration of immature neurons

By studying transgenic mice carrying tumours, the researcher also finds that, when a tumour was established, the immature cells found in the tumour were less numerous in the brain. "There were two explanations: either the DCX+ cells [cells expressing the DCX protein]would die in this area without being identified as the cause, or they would leave this area, which could explain their appearance in the tumour," she says. Different experiments finally show that the second hypothesis is the right one: the cells migrate through the blood-brain barrier, charged to protect the brain and usually very waterproof. "At the moment, there is no way to know whether this permeability problem precedes the appearance of cancer due to other factors, or whether it is caused by the cancer itself, via signals from the developing tumour," she continues.

Towards new treatments?

While further work is needed to deepen this discovery, it is already paving the way for a new therapeutic pathway. It would be possible to kill these immature nerve cells before they reach the tumour. "In mice, we realized that when we destroyed these cells in the brain, when we prevented the migration of these cells and thus the presence of these cells in the tumour, we blocked the development of the tumour," Claire Magnon told France Inter.

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Clinical evidence also shows that cancer patients taking beta-blockers, a family of drugs known to block neuron activity, have better survival rates. "It would be interesting to test these drugs as anti-cancer drugs," she says.