Tumour cells can plug into—and feed off—the brain’s complex network of neurons, according to a trio of studies. This nefarious ability could explain the mysterious behaviour of certain tumours, and point to new ways of treating cancer.
The studies, published on 18 September in Nature, describe this startling capability in brain cancers called gliomas, as well as in some breast cancers that spread to the brain. The findings bolster a growing realization among doctors and scientists that the nervous system plays an important role in the growth of cancers, says Michelle Monje, a paediatric neuro-oncologist at Stanford University in California and lead author of one of the studies.
Even so, finding cancer cells that behave like neurons was a surprise. “It’s unsettling,” Monje says.
“If this is broadly applicable across more cancers, then it’s not necessarily surprising why it has been so challenging to treat cancers in the brain,” says Johanna Joyce, a cancer biologist at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. The tumour cells are essentially integrated into the brain’s neural network, she says. “It’s sobering.”
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