Recent research has unveiled the ability of cancer cells to invade and take over our brain’s neural network. Three independent studies, Monje, Winkler, and Hanahan have indicated that not only can cancer cells metastasize to parts of the body, including the brain, but once present, they have the uncanny ability to “hijack” our brain and incorporate into our neurons. The research published in Nature discovered this unusual ability in a certain type of brain cancer called gliomas and in specific aggressive breast cancers that are known to spread to the brain, called Triple Negative Breast Cancer. This accidental discovery was “crazy stuff” according to Winkler, and researchers were not only amazed by their findings, but found it difficult to believe. The implications of the research hold great promise for treating aggressive forms of cancer in the future.
The first discovery was made by Winkler’s team and supported by Monje, found that synapses in the tumors themselves, specifically in glioma samples, are a type of cancer that is known to be difficult to treat. Synapses are usually used for neural cell communication, but the discovery of them in tumor cells was novel. The synapses seem to play a role in allowing the cancer cells to grow and thrive. This discovery indicates that cancer’s ability to “weave into the brain’s neural network” explains why these cancers have been so difficult to detect early on and treat successfully. Rather than disrupting the brain’s functions, the tumor incorporates itself into the brain’s normal functions, becoming a stealthy “hijacker”.
In a third study, Hanahan expanded the results from not only brain cancers but also certain types of aggressive breast cancers that are known to spread to the brain. They found that certain breast cancer cells actually invade the brain and take on a role similar to neurons. These triple-negative tumors had the uncanny ability to turn on genes that play a role in signaling between neurons. They specifically found the cancer cells to have the ability in the brain to create a specialized type of synapse that can take in a large amount of Glutamate, one of our brain’s main neurotransmitters. Glutamate not only functions as a neurotransmitter, relaying signals between neurons, but also seems to play a role in tumor growth.
Lisa Sevenich, a scientist studying brain cancer, emphasized how hostile the brain’s environment is for cancer cells, and the ability of these glioma cells to survive and even thrive in the brain highlights their adaptability and resilience. Researchers looking forward hoping that these unusual cancer cells may hold promise for new innovative treatments for cancer in the future.