Cancer-Associated Neurogenesis and Nerve-Cancer Cross-talk

Cancer Res. 2021 Mar 15;81(6):1431-1440. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-20-2793. Epub 2020 Dec 17.


In this review, we highlight recent discoveries regarding mechanisms contributing to nerve-cancer cross-talk and the effects of nerve-cancer cross-talk on tumor progression and dissemination. High intratumoral nerve density correlates with poor prognosis and high recurrence across multiple solid tumor types. Recent research has shown that cancer cells express neurotrophic markers such as nerve growth factor, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, and glial cell-derived neurotrophic factor and release axon-guidance molecules such as ephrin B1 to promote axonogenesis. Tumor cells recruit new neural progenitors to the tumor milieu and facilitate their maturation into adrenergic infiltrating nerves. Tumors also rewire established nerves to adrenergic phenotypes via exosome-induced neural reprogramming by p53-deficient tumors. In turn, infiltrating sympathetic nerves facilitate cancer progression. Intratumoral adrenergic nerves release noradrenaline to stimulate angiogenesis via VEGF signaling and enhance the rate of tumor growth. Intratumoral parasympathetic nerves may have a dichotomous role in cancer progression and may induce Wnt-β-catenin signals that expand cancer stem cells. Importantly, infiltrating nerves not only influence the tumor cells themselves but also impact other cells of the tumor stroma. This leads to enhanced sympathetic signaling and glucocorticoid production, which influences neutrophil and macrophage differentiation, lymphocyte phenotype, and potentially lymphocyte function. Although much remains unexplored within this field, fundamental discoveries underscore the importance of nerve-cancer cross-talk to tumor progression and may provide the foundation for developing effective targets for the inhibition of tumor-induced neurogenesis and tumor progression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autonomic Denervation / methods
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / metabolism
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Disease Progression
  • Feedback, Physiological
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / blood supply
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Neoplasms / therapy
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / pathology*
  • Neovascularization, Pathologic / pathology
  • Neurogenesis*
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / drug effects
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / growth & development*
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / surgery
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / drug effects
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / growth & development*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / surgery
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • Biomarkers, Tumor