botox
Botox has proven successful in treating gastric cancer in miceGetty

Researchers have found a novel approach to treating gastric cancer - using Botox.

Normally used commercially for cosmetic and medical procedures, a study has found the Botulinum toxin successfully suppressed growth of cancer stem cells in mice.

Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that cancer growth could be curbed by eliminating the signals sent by nerves linked to cancerous stem cells.

Using minute doses of Botox, the most acutely lethal toxin known, made the treatment cheap, safe and efficient.

The promising results from this study have led to an initiation of a phase II clinical trial for patients with stomach cancer in Norway.

The research shows how the nervous system is crucial in regulating many organs. The vagal nerve contributes to the growth of gastric tumours - so stopping the nerve signal to the tumour will halt its growth.

"This study shows that nerves control cancer stem cells," authors Professor Duan Chen, of NTNU and Timothy Wang, of Columbia University, told Science. "We found that by removing the effect of the nerve, the stem cells in the cancer tumour are suppressed, leading to cancer treatment and prevention."

The researchers tried four methods to cut the connection between the nerves and the tumour - by surgically cutting the gastric vagus nerve, by local injection of Botox to block the release of neurotransmitter from the vagus nerve, by giving a drug to block the receptor of the neurotransmitter, and by knocking out the receptor gene. All procedures suppressed the tumour growth.

"But we found that the anti-cancer effects were remarkable, especially with local vagotomy or by injecting Botox. It actually surprised us. The finding that Botox was highly effective was particularly exciting," Chen said.

"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," he said

He added that the procedure is also less toxic than most standard cancer treatments, less expensive and has hardly any side-effects.

"However, for most patients, we are suggesting that denervation works best in combination with traditional chemotherapy, since loss of nervous input appears to make cancer cells more vulnerable to chemotherapy, which makes the chemotherapy more efficient as well," Wang said.

The Botox treatment can be an additional treatment for patients who have inoperable stomach cancer, or patients who have received chemotherapy but no longer respond to such therapy.

"The nerve-tumour growth connection is likely to be true in other solid tumours, such as in prostate cancer, but the precise nerves that are involved are likely to vary from organ to organ and tumor to tumor. Further studies are needed," the researchers added.

The study was published in Science Translational Medicine.