Tumor innervation is triggered by endoplasmic reticulum stress

Oncogene. 2021 Nov 16. doi: 10.1038/s41388-021-02108-6. Online ahead of print.


Nerve infiltration in the tumor microenvironment is emerging as a promoter of cancer progression that could be targeted in therapies, but the mechanisms initiating tumor innervation remain to be elucidated. Here we report that endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress in cancer cells is transmitted to neuronal cells, resulting in neurite outgrowth and tumor innervation. In vitro, the induction of ER stress in various human cancer cells resulted in the synthesis and release of the precursor for brain-derived neurotrophic factor (proBDNF) through a mechanism dependent on the transcription factor X-box binding protein 1 (XBP1). Cancer cell-released proBDNF was found to mediate the transmission of ER stress to neurons, resulting in the stimulation of neurite outgrowth. Next-generation sequencing indicated the increased expression of the Egl-9 family hypoxia inducible factor 3 (EGLN3) that was mediated by c-MYC and necessary to neurite outgrowth induced by proBDNF. In orthotopic tumor xenograft, ER stress stimulated XBP1 and proBDNF expression as well as tumor innervation. Anti-proBDNF antibody inhibited both tumor innervation and cancer progression induced by ER stress. Interestingly, the chemotherapeutic drug 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU) was found to induce ER stress and tumor innervation, and this effect was inhibited by anti-proBDNF antibody. Finally, in human tumors, cancer tissues with nerve infiltration expressed high XBP1 and proBDNF while EGLN3 was upregulated in infiltrated nerves. This study reveals that ER stress participates in tumor innervation through the release of proBDNF and that targeting this pathway could be used in future therapies.