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‘Neurotherapy’ for cancer: a new AIRC project starts at SISSA

18 January 2021
Neurobiologist Paul Heppenstall receives funding to investigate to role of nerve fibres in tumours

Cancer is often accompanied by horrific pain. Patients can perceive it because of the specific sensory neurons which, among other fibres, infiltrate the tumour area. But what if exploiting this tumour innervation could help treating cancer? This is the main question that will drive the work of Paul Heppenstall, professor of physiology at SISSA, who has just been awarded a five-years project, worth 450.000 Euros, from AIRC Foundation for Cancer Research.

“Over the last decade, several studies have shown that peripheral nerve fibres contribute to initiation and progression in essentially all solid tumours”, Heppenstall explains. “However, how neurons regulate the surrounding environment and favour the disease is still an open question which may have crucial impact for cancer treatment.”

Thanks to the newly funded project – entitled ‘Cancer neurotherapy: Engineering neurons to regulate the tumour microenvironment’ – the scientist and his lab will investigate in particular the role of sensory receptors in pancreatic and breast cancers, both among the most common forms of malignancies in the world.

A recognised expert in the physiology of sensory neurons, Heppenstall is moving for the first time into cancer research. “I am really excited about starting this new line of research and I am very grateful to AIRC for their support,” he commented. “I do hope that by understanding which nerves contribute to tumour progression and how this happens, we may uncover targets for treatment as well as innovative therapeutic approaches.”

A research fellow and a PhD student will join Heppenstall's lab in the coming months to work on the project which has just officially started. The study will also take advantage of a collaboration with Kristina Havas at IFOM - the Firc Institute of Molecular Oncology, who is an expert in breast cancer research, and Vincenzo Corbo at the University of Verona, who has significant expertise in the study of pancreatic cancer.

(Image by Alessandro Barenghi)