Schwann cells induce cancer cell dispersion and invasion
Nerves enable cancer progression, as cancers have been shown to extend along nerves through the process of perineural invasion, which carries a poor prognosis. Furthermore, the innervation of some cancers promotes growth and metastases. It remains unclear, however, how nerves mechanistically contribute to cancer progression. Here, we demonstrated that Schwann cells promote cancer invasion through direct cancer cell contact. Histological evaluation of murine and human cancer specimens with perineural invasion uncovered a subpopulation of Schwann cells that associates with cancer cells. Coculture of cancer cells with dorsal root ganglion extracts revealed that Schwann cells direct cancer cells to migrate toward nerves and promote invasion in a contact-dependent manner. Upon contact, Schwann cells induced the formation of cancer cell protrusions in their direction and intercalated between the cancer cells, leading to cancer cell dispersion. The formation of these processes was dependent on Schwann cell expression of neural cell adhesion molecule 1 (NCAM1) and ultimately promoted perineural invasion. Moreover, NCAM1-deficient mice showed decreased neural invasion and less paralysis. Such Schwann cell behavior reflects normal Schwann cell programs that are typically activated in nerve repair but are instead exploited by cancer cells to promote perineural invasion and cancer progression.