Stem Cells, Nerves Found to Interact in Cancer Progression


Researchers examine how stem cells promote neuronal growth in tissue regeneration and in cancer progression.

Researchers at the Institute of Oral Biology of the University of Zurich have released 2 studies that examine how stem cells promote neuronal growth in tissue regeneration and in cancer progression.

Their findings demonstrate that different stem cell populations are innervated in distinct ways and that innervation may be crucial for proper tissue regeneration, according to the study. They also demonstrate that cancer steam cells likewise establish contacts with nerves.

Stem cells can generate a variety of specific tissues that are increasingly being used for clinical application, such as the replacement of bone or cartilage, but are present in cancerous tissues and are involved in cancer progression and metastasis. Nerves are therefore fundamental for regulating the physiological and regenerative processes involving stem cells.

Using “organ-on-a-chip” technology, which relies on small 3-dimensional devices mimicking the basic function of human organs and tissues, the researchers demonstrated that both types of stem cells promoted neuronal growth. The dental pulp stem cells, however, yielded better results compared with bone marrow stem cells. They induced more elongated neurons, formed dense neuronal networks, and established close contacts with nerves.

Dental stem cells produce specific molecules that are fundamental for the growth and attraction of neurons. Therefore, stem cells are abundantly innervated, according to the study authors. The formation of such extended networks and the establishment of numerous contacts suggest that dental stem cells create functional connections with nerves of the face. Therefore, these cells could represent an attractive choice for the regeneration of functional, properly innervated facial tissue.

In the second study, the researchers examined the interaction between nerves and cancer stem cells found in ameloblastoma, an aggressive tumor of the mouth. They first demonstrated that ameloblastomas have stem cell properties and are innervated by facial neurons. When ameloblastoma cells were isolated and placed in the “organ-on-a-chip” devices, they retained not only their stem cell properties, but also attracted nerves and established contact with them.

Nerves appear to be fundamental for the survival and function of cancer stem cells. These results create new possibilities for cancer treatment using drugs that modify the communication between neurons and cancer stem cells. The researchers hope this opens unforeseen paths toward effective therapies against cancer.

The combination of advanced molecular and imaging tools and “organ-on-a-chip” technology offers an opportunity to reveal the hidden functions of neurons and their interactions with various stem cell types, in both healthy and pathological conditions.


  • Stem Cells and Nerves Interact in Tissue Regeneration and Cancer Progression [news release]. University of Zurich website. March 23, 2020. Accessed March 26, 2020.

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