In a new study, researchers from Baylor College of Medicine have found that prostate cancer promotes the growth of new nerves and the branching axons that carry their messages - a finding associated with more aggressive tumours.
Previous studies have shown that prostate cancer follows the growth of nerves, but this is the first time that scientists have demonstrated that the tumours actually promote nerve growth.
"This is the first report of this phenomenon," said Dr. Gustavo Ayala, professor of pathology and urology at BCM.
"It represents an important new target in prostate cancer treatment, as prostate cancers are more aggressive when neurogenesis is present."
Ayala noted that this finding is comparable to the discovery of angiogenesis or the growth of new blood vessels. Both are part of the wound repair process.
"We also believe that axongenesis and neurogenesis is found not only in prostate cancer, but is potentially a more global phenomenon, particularly relating to those cancers that grow along nerve paths," said Ayala, also a researcher in the Dan L. Duncan Cancer Center at BCM.
Ayala and his colleagues studied the neurogenesis in tissue culture, in human tissues of patients who had had prostate cancer and compared to prostate tissues from patients who had died of other ailments.
They found that nerve density was considerably higher in patients with prostate cancer and in precancerous lesions.
They have also identified a possible method of regulating the growth of new nerves and axons through a protein called semaphorin 4F.
Semaphorins are embryologically active molecules that regulate nerve growth and direction. Most disappear in adults, but semaphoring 4F is active in wound repair.
When prostate cancer cells overproduce semaphorin 4F, new nerves result.
Blocking semaphoring 4F prevents the growth of new nerves.
The study appears in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.