Is Cancer Neuroscience?

This post is in collaboration with Sarianna Mikaela, who graduated with a B.Sc. (Hons) in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Edinburgh (UK) before pursuing M.Sc. in Biomedicine at Karolinksa Institutet (Sweden). Currently she is an Erasmus+ scholar at the University of Cambridge studying small cell lung cancer cells using whole cell patch clamping.


No, I am not talking about brain cancer.

What if I told you that lung cancer cells talk amongst themselves in a similar way that nerves do?


Neurons (or nerve cells) communicate with each other by generating electrical signals called action potentials. These action potentials occur due to the presence of pores (made up of proteins) in cell membrane that can sense changes in voltage and in response to the changing voltage lets ions into or out of the cell, called voltage-gated ion channels. High levels of voltage-gated ion channels are usually only found in neurons. Bizarrely enough, recently patch clamp recordings (described in a previous post) have been made in a type of lung cancer called small cell lung cancer and spontaneous action potentials were found. This indicates these cells start behaving like neurons during the transformation from a normal lung cell to a lung cancer cell. How do they change themselves to neuron-like cells? We do not know. What purpose does this serve? We can speculate that communicating with each other can help the cancer cells through the bloodstream into a new area of the body – a process we know as metastasizing of cancer.

Cancer research is heavily funded and has been going on for years, so why are we finding this out now? Turns out that scientists in different areas of biology like to stick to their own tools. Cancer biologists are traditionally interested in protein expression in the cells. Through the years, they had seen that some cancer cells have a high amount of proteins that form voltage gated ion channels needed for neuronal communication. However, they did not think of recording electrical signals from these cells as neuroscientists do. This once again, highlights the need for intra and inter-disciplinary collaboration between laboratories that use different tools. Cancer research laboratories will need to gain expertise and equipment of neuroscientists, and neuroscientists will need to devote more of their time to cancer research. If it will give rise to a new field altogether remains to be seen but one thing is becoming increasingly clear: if we are to understand how cells in our body communicate with each other, we, scientists, need to talk more to each other.


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