Nerve-blocking drugs show promise in slowing head and neck cancer growth

A recent study has revealed that drugs blocking the activity of sensory nerves could potentially slow or stop the growth of certain head and neck cancers. The research, conducted by the University of Colorado School of Medicine, found that sensory nerves within the tumor microenvironment play a role in accelerating tumor growth by impeding the immune system’s ability to generate specific T-cells, which are crucial for combating disease within the tumor tissue .

Lead author of the study, Laurel Darragh, emphasized the significance of these findings, stating, “We have long known that the intensity of nerve interactions within the tumor microenvironment are associated with worse outcomes in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma” . The study’s senior author, Sana Karam, further highlighted the potential of nerve-blocking agents to be used in conjunction with radiation and other existing treatment regimens, suggesting that these drugs could have synergistic effects with radiation and potentially lower toxicities compared to current treatments.

The researchers discovered that sensory nerves release a protein called calcitonin gene-related peptide, which directly inhibits the immune cells in the tumor environment, thereby promoting tumor growth. By blocking the nerves through surgical, genetic, or pharmacological means, the researchers observed increased T-cell activity and a halt in cancer progression for approximately six weeks .

Notably, drugs that block nerve activity, such as gabapentin and botox, were found to be particularly effective when used alongside radiation treatment. This approach holds promise for developing improved therapeutics for patients who may not tolerate chemotherapy or radiation, according to Sana Karam.

The study’s findings shed light on the potential of nerve-blocking drugs to play a significant role in the treatment of head and neck cancers, offering new avenues for therapeutic intervention and potentially enhancing the life expectancy and quality of life for cancer patients.