Nerve cells have long been thought of as mere bystanders in the spread of cancer. But Brain Canada-funded research by Dr. Sebastien Talbot shows that some nerve cells are crucial to tumour survival.

Dr. Talbot and his team identified a unique group of nerve cells within melanoma tumours. These support tumour growth and spread. The nerve cells secrete a chemical messenger called CGRP which inhibits the ability of key immune cells to fight tumors. In the process, CGRP helps the cancer resist treatment. Markers of CGRP activity are more prevalent in patients whose cancer progresses quickly.

At the time I applied for this funding, the idea of cancer neuroscience was really “out there”.  Thanks to the work of my lab and others, it’s now well-established – and has even been featured in the New York Times.

Dr. Sebastien Talbot

Dr. Talbot and his team were able to block the electrical activity of the nerve cells in mice and restore the ability of immune cells to subdue the cancer. They hope to achieve the same restoration in humans. They will do so by targeting specific pathways involved in the communication between nerve cells and the tumour. One of the therapeutic avenues that Dr. Talbot and his team are exploring is drugs that were originally developed for neurological disease.

Brain Canada was the first funder to support me out of my post-doctoral training. It kick-started my independent research career – and now my lab receives funding from all sorts of funding agencies, including the NIH.

What’s the impact?

Dr. Talbot and his research team are changing the way we think about nerve cells in the context of cancer. They showed that nerve cells are key factors in how cancer tumours grow and resist treatment. In doing so, Dr. Talbot has helped to establish an emerging field of research called cancer neuroscience that is advancing our understanding of how neurons contribute to tumour growth and identifying new ways to treat cancer.

Dr. Talbot’s Brain Canada-funded research has resulted in two patents, $2 million in additional research funding, citations by dozens of researchers around the world, and fame in the form of mention in the New York Times.