An international team of researchers has made a surprising discovery in cancer research. Botox - more well known as a beauty therapy - is a cheap, safe and effective anti-cancer treatment.
In the study, researchers from Norway, Japan, Germany and the US investigated the role of the nervous system in cancer. They found that the vagal nerve contributes to the growth of gastric tumors through the release of a neurotransmitter.
In order to restrict tumor growth, the team began testing methods that would prevent this nerve from signaling to the tumor.
"We found that by removing the effect of the nerve, the stem cells in the cancer tumor are suppressed, leading to cancer treatment and prevention," says Prof. Duan Chen, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
The team trialed four methods to sever connections between the nerve and tumor. These were:
  • Cutting the gastric vagus nerve (vagotomy)
  • Administering a local injection of Botox to block the release of the neurotransmitter from the vagus nerve
  • Administering a drug to block the receptor of the neurotransmitter
  • Knocking out the receptor gene.
Which procedures were most successful at severing the tumor-nerve connection?
All of the procedures were successful at suppressing tumor growth. But the anti-cancer effects were most profound with the local vagotomy and Botox methods. "It actually surprised us," says Prof. Chen. "The finding that Botox was highly effective was particularly exciting."
"We believe this treatment is a good treatment because it can be used locally and it targets the cancer stem cells," he says. An added benefit of Botox is that the treatment only requires the patient to stay in the hospital for a few hours.
Medical News Today asked co-author Prof. Timothy C. Wang, of Columbia University Medical Center, NY, what led the team to consider Botox as a tool for severing the connection between tumor and nerve. He replied:
"We found that the neurotransmitter acetylcholine was the primary mediator of tumor growth, and Botox is known to block acetylcholine release from nerve terminals - that is how it paralyzes facial muscles. We have used this in gastroenterology to relax tight sphincters in the esophagus and stomach, and it has been used to reduce the growth of enlarged prostates in men. Thus, there was a track record for this 'chemical denervation' approach."
Botox is less expensive and less toxic than most standard cancer treatments, with hardly any side effects.
Despite this, for most patients, the researchers suggest that the best treatment is cutting the gastric vagus nerve in combination with traditional chemotherapy. This is because the loss of input from the nerve makes the cancer more vulnerable and boosts the efficacy of chemotherapy.
Botox, however, could be considered as an additional treatment for patients who can no longer respond to chemotherapy or who do not wish to undergo chemotherapy. It may also be beneficial for patients whose stomach cancer is considered to be inoperable.
"The nerve-tumor growth connection is likely to be true in other solid tumors," the researchers write, "such as in prostate cancer, but the precise nerves that are involved are likely to vary from organ to organ and tumor to tumor. Further studies are needed."
The researchers will follow up their initial work with a phase 2 clinical trial in patients with stomach cancer in Norway.