Stick a Needle in Cancer: Botox May Slow Growth in Gastric Tumors

Widely known to prevent signs of aging, injections of Botox (onabotulinumtoxinA) could also be used to sever nerves to halt tumor growth in gastrointestinal cancer

Widely known to prevent signs of aging, injections of Botox (onabotulinumtoxinA) could also be used to sever nerves to halt tumor growth in gastrointestinal cancer, according to study results published in Science Translational Medicine.

Researchers from Columbia University, MIT, and Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), along with others from Japan and Germany, have now shown that the vagal nerve is integral to the growth of gastric tumors, and believe that preventing the nerve signal to the tumor will stop its growth.

Using 3 different mice models with stomach cancer, Timothy C. Wang, MD, the Dorothy L. and Daniel H. Silberberg Professor of Medicine at Columbia’s Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, and his team found that performing a vagotomy procedure to cut the vagal nerves significantly slowed tumor growth and increased survival rates by nearly 30%.

According to the reports, the researchers tried four different methods to cut the connection between the nerves and the tumor: surgically performing a vagotomy and cutting the gastric vagus nerve, locally injecting Botox to block the release of neurotransmitter from the vagus nerve, providing a drug to block the receptor of the neurotransmitter, and knocking out of the receptor gene. All procedures succeeded in ending the tumor growth.

The nervous system is critical to organ regulation. “Scientists have long observed that human and mouse cancers contain a lot of nerves in and around the tumor cells,” said Wang. “We wanted to understand more about the role of nerves in the initiation and growth of cancer, by focusing on stomach cancer.”

His team’s findings suggested Botox injections were just as effective as surgery at weakening stomach cancer growth and being more responsive to chemotherapy. Wang noted, “We found that blocking the nerve signals makes the cancer cells more vulnerable‑‑it removes one of the key factors that regulate their growth.”

NTNU Professor and co-corresponding author, Duan Chen, MD, commented, "We believe this treatment is a good treatment because it can be used locally and it targets the cancer stem cells. The Botox can be injected through gastroscopy and it only requires the patient to stay in the hospital for a few hours," said Chen.

Wang plans subsequent experiments to investigate the efficacy of nerve-targeted therapy combined with other cancer treatments in more advanced tumors. Researchers were additionally surprised to note this procedure is less expensive, provides few side effects, and has lower toxicity rates compared with standard cancer treatments.

This study’s positive results have led to the initiation of a phase II clinical trial in Norway. Patients with inoperable stomach cancer will receive Botox injections to de-nerve their stomachs in an effort to terminate tumor progression.