NEW DELHI: Drugs blocking activity of sensory nerves could stop or slow certain head and neck cancers from growing, new research has found.
Studying interactions between nerves and tumour microenvironments, researchers found that sensory nerves helped accelerate tumour growth by preventing the immune system from generating specific T-cells, important to fighting disease within the tumour tissue.
Nerve blocking agents could thus be used together with radiation and other currently available treatment regimens, the researchers said.
“We have long known that the intensity of nerve interactions within the tumour microenvironment are associated with worse outcomes in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma,” said Laurel Darragh, an MD/PhD student focused on radiation oncology at the University of Colorado (CU) School of Medicine, US, and lead author of the study published in the journal Med.
“This prompted us to investigate how these nerve interactions impact the adaptive immune system and tumour growth,” said Darragh.
By performing RNA sequencing on human tumour tissue, the researchers found that the sensory nerves released a protein called calcitonin, a gene-related peptide that directly inhibited the immune cells in the tumour environment. RNA sequencing helps understand gene expression.
Blocking the nerves surgically, genetically or through the use of drugs, was observed to increase T-cell activity and stop the progression of the cancer for about six weeks.
The researchers said that drugs that block nerve activity like gabapentin and botox were found to be especially effective when used in conjunction with radiation treatment.
The therapeutics may have synergistic effects with radiation and potentially lower toxicities than current available treatment regimens, according to the study’s senior author Sana Karam, professor of radiation oncology at the CU School of Medicine.
“We want to get to the bottom of the mechanisms behind this so we can develop better therapeutics for patients who cannot tolerate chemotherapy or radiation,” said Karam. “We are looking at nerves firing and seeing how we can block them at the terminal end and investigate how that affects cancer growth.”
Evidence of enhancing life expectancy and quality of life of cancer patients by relieving pain through interventional pain management techniques, including the use of nerve blocking agents, is currently “anecdotal”, and is something that needs scientific investigation, according to Dr Lakshmi Vas, Director, Ashirvad Institute for Pain Management and Research, Mumbai.





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