The Emerging Frontier: Cancer Neuroscience

By Emery Haley, Joe Floramo and Nadia Dehghani
2021 Origins of Cancer student organizers

Each year, scientists-in-training at Van Andel Institute Graduate School organize the Origins of Cancer symposium, which explores the latest advances in cancer research in hopes of finding ways to translate discoveries into better clinical care. This year’s symposium, which will be held virtually July 22–23, will tackle the emerging field of cancer neuroscience.

Emery Haley

In science, the study of cancer and the study of the brain and nervous system have long been considered separate fields. But as we learn more about both, it’s becoming clear that a combined approach may be better. Enter the field of cancer neuroscience. To understand what this means, it’s helpful to explore a couple definitions

Cancers are devastating diseases marked by uncontrolled cell growth. Each year, more than 17 million people worldwide receive a diagnosis, directly impacting the individuals diagnosed, their families, their care partners and society as a whole.

Portrait of Joe Floramo
Joe Floramo

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system and broadly describes a discipline that affects the entire body. Thus, neuroscientists often have sub-specialties such as genetics, electrical wiring of nerves, brain pathology and molecular interactions within the nervous system.

There is growing evidence that cancers and the nervous system “talk” to each other. These “conversations” can occur locally, between neighboring cells, or over long-distances, as body-wide interactions.

In one direction, cancer cells themselves, or the therapies prescribed to treat them, affect the nervous system. Since nerves exist throughout the body, cancer cells can grow near neurons. When cancer cells and nerves are in close proximity, cancer cells can secrete factors that alter how the nerves receive and transmit messages, and how they grow. This may disrupt normal neural communication pathways, and this disruption may promote metastasis (that is, the spread of cancer to other areas of the body). Moreover, cancer therapies are often toxic to neurons, and this unintended neural damage can result in debilitating side-effects including cognitive impairment, motor weakness and nerve pain.

Portrait of Nadia Dehghani
Nadia Dehghani

In the other direction, the nervous system can impact cancer onset and progression. Signals from the nervous system have been implicated in many hallmarks of cancer including promotion of blood vessel growth and evasion of destruction by immune cells. These factors may be especially relevant in cancers that occur within the brain and nervous system, such as notoriously deadly high-grade gliomas.

Due to these many overlaps, it’s clear that the historically strict professional distinction between cancer biologists and neuroscientists is no longer so. Researchers who focus on specific cancer types are delving into the ways the nervous system impacts — and is influenced by — cancer, while neuroscientists are exploring how nerve damage can result from cancer and treatment.

To learn more or to register for Origins of Cancer — The Emerging Frontier: Cancer Neuroscience, please visit originsofcancer.org.