Cancer cells in the brain can form connections with neurons to receive electrical impulses that stimulate tumour growth, new research has shown. These findings could both explain the rapid growth rate of brain tumours and provide a viable drug target by ‘jamming’ the electrical signals.

Glioblastoma (GBM) is an aggressive brain tumour that spreads in a web like fashion to infiltrate multiple areas of the brain. Previous research had identified that the GBM cancer cells link together in a similar fashion to neurons.

Neurons link together at junctions known as synapses, which allow electrical and chemical signals to pass between the cells. These connections regulate brain activity. New research has revealed that GBM cells can also form synaptic connections with neuron cells. The electrical signals produced by the neurons have been found to stimulate the growth of GBM tumours.

Although it is still unclear why these synaptic connections can stimulate tumour growth, blocking the synaptic receptors was found to reduce the brain tumour growth in animals. Neurotransmitters, chemical molecules that carry the cells electrical impulses across the synapse, must bind to an AMPA receptor on the cell receiving the electrical signal. There are several existing drugs that can bind to and block the AMPA receptor to stop the signal transmission between neurons and GBM cells.

The researchers therefore state that AMPA antagonist drugs could be promising options for glioblastoma clinical trials.

At the World Metastasis Summit, taking place in Boston this November, Bruce Zetter, Professor of Cancer Biology at Harvard University will be discussing A Method to Select Drug Candidates that Target Late-stage Tumors. You can view the full agenda here.