The University of Newcastle, Australia

Nervous tissue growth factors promote aggressive cancers

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Researchers from the University of Newcastle and Hunter Cancer Research Alliance are discovering exciting new avenues for the diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer using the knowledge that nerve cells act to fuel cancer growth.

Over recent years, several studies have revealed that nerve cells promote cancer progression by infiltrating early tumours to make them more aggressive, encouraging growth and spread.

The Cancer Neurobiology group, which is headed by Professor Hubert Hondermarck are pioneering the field and exploring the rapidly expanding state of knowledge about the role of nerve cells in prostate cancer, specifically looking at implications for aggressive forms of the disease, which are known to be devastating for patients. Their extensive review was recently published in the prestigious journal Nature Reviews Urology.

“The potential applications of this knowledge are vast and could reveal new avenues to manage prostate cancer by predicting aggressive prostate cancers that require treatment, treating localised disease through stopping nerve progression and using new specific drugs that would also have less side effects for patients and relieve cancer-associated pain,” Prof Hubert Hondermarck says.

“The role of nerves in cancer growth and spread was first demonstrated in prostate cancer and later shown in other cancers such as brain cancer and pancreatic cancer where the high number of nerve cells are likely to fuel tumour growth.”

The Cancer Neurobiology Group was recently awarded a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Ideas grant, in collaboration with the RADAR clinical trial, headed by Professor Jim Denham from The University of Newcastle, to investigate these new possibilities.

It is likely that these results do have further implications for other cancers such as brain and pancreatic cancer, which has recently been revealed to have particular relevance in the Hunter with Prof Jim Denham identifying that Muswellbrook has the highest incidence and mortality rates in NSW for pancreatic cancer.

“There is a strong need to use nerve growth factors to detect aggressive cancer earlier so we can treat it before and prevent deaths,” Professor Jim Denham says.

“The research into the role of nerves in cancer is more important than ever.”

The Maitland Cancer Appeal Committee and the Mark Hughes Foundation (MHF) have also recognise the importance of this growing area, recently supporting this research, where the aim is to ultimately block the cancer promoting impact of nerve cells.

*Professor Hubert Hondermarck is a Professor in Biochemistry from the University of Newcastle, researching in conjunction with Hunter Cancer Research Alliance, which incorporates hunter Medical Research Institute’s Cancer Program. HCRA is a collaborative partnership between Hunter Medical Research Institute, the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Local Health District, and the Calvary Mater Newcastle and is proudly supported by Cancer Institute NSW.


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