Collaboration across lab may lead to better cancer treatment

Sanford Research scientists in oncology, neuroscience study new ways to stop tumor growth

Dr. Paola Vermeer poses with four others in lab coats in the Sanford Research lab. In the background are shelves with brightly colored bottles, blue plastic bins and metal lockers.

The collaborative nature at Sanford Health is helping the brightest minds in science and medicine learn more about cancer.

Specifically, identifying how cancer cells impact the nervous system and vice versa.

Looking at cancer as an organ

Paola D. Vermeer, Ph.D. is an associate scientist at Sanford Research. She’s also the head of the Vermeer Lab.

She, her neuroscientist colleague Jeff Barr, and other scientists in her lab recently published a highly regarded study, in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, illuminating how intra-tumoral neurons impact cancer.

Let’s break that term down.

  • Intra = internal
  • Tumoral = tumor
  • Neuron = the carrier cell that delivers information to other cells

To help explain this, Dr. Vermeer said it’s important to look at cancer “like an organ, because it brings in a lot of components from the host.”

“A cancer is very much like any other organ in your body, only it’s a foreign organ. Like normal organs in the body, the cancer ‘organ’ utilizes programs that allow for its persistent growth. These programs include recruitment endothelial cells to form blood vessels and recruitment of neurons. It is these recruiting signals that we need to identify.

“Once we know what the signals are and what they do, they then become targets for therapeutic intervention. We have been studying signals that recruit components of the nervous system. Once we understand these signals at a molecular level, we can design drugs to turn them off,” she explained.

Ovarian cancer signals

In her study, she and her team focused on identifying the source of said intra-tumoral neurons, using ovarian cancer as a model. Her team used ultrasound guided intra-tumoral injections of nerve tracer to accomplish this, something that has not been done before.

“Now we know where these neurons are coming from. With this information, we gain an appreciation of what types of neurons they are. We can now ask questions about signals they may be releasing into the tumor bed. Even though it’s not in this publication, we have already defined these important neuronal signals and are beginning to understand how they impact cancer cells directly,” she said.

Dr. Vermeer said these signals now become targets for therapeutic intervention.

“The powerful thing about that is that for a lot of these targets, drugs may already exist. These drugs are being used to treat neurological diseases or for other indications. Since they have already gone through the FDA approval process, we already know their safety profile. We may now be able to test them in the context of oncology,” Dr. Vermeer said.

This could result in a shorter time between “bench to bedside.”

Collaboration at Sanford

It took roughly one year for this study to be published. Dr. Vermeer said using the nerve tracers to map where intra-tumoral neurons originated from wasn’t actually that hard.

Why wasn’t it hard? Her team is phenomenal.

“A lot of that was again, thanks to Jeff who came in and brought these techniques with him,” Dr. Vermeer said.

Dr. Vermeer hired Jeff Barr before the study started. She said Dr. Barr’s arrival and participation in this study “has been a game changer.”

“When he started in the lab, he had absolutely no cancer research experience, but he’s a neuroscientist. To have somebody with that depth of knowledge allows us to do so many things that push the envelope in the field. He brought in all the neuroscience expertise,” she said.

Dr. Vermeer said bringing in experts from multiple fields for one project proves that collaboration is a priority at Sanford Health. Collaboration is also a key for healthy patients.

“We’re taking two disciplines that are essentially in different worlds, and forming an interface by communicating and working together; this allows us to learn more about the disease process. We’re being very inter-disciplinary in the way we approach this, which has also enabled us to collaborate with a lot of other investigators outside Sanford,” she said.

The outside investigators, like the University of Pennsylvania, see what Dr. Vermeer and her team are doing and want to be a part of it. A big reason for this is Sanford Research has a wide variety of resources.

“The interdisciplinary nature and the newness of it is allowing others to see, ‘Hey, Sanford Research is doing some pretty cool stuff. They have access to some equipment that not all other places have readily available to them.’ So, that’s enticing for outside investigators to collaborate with us. And, that just makes the work much richer. It really expands our ability to ask different questions and it expands our influence in the field,” she said.

The study was published Dec. 10, 2021, in the journal Cells.

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Posted In Brain & Spine, Cancer, Research