Date of Graduation


Document Type

Dissertation (PhD)

Program Affiliation

Cancer Biology

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Advisor/Committee Chair

Anil Sood

Committee Member

Andrew Bean

Committee Member

Eric Wagner

Committee Member

Menashe Bar-Eli

Committee Member

Gary Gallick


Background: Activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) in response to chronic biobehavioral stress results in high levels of catecholamines and persistent activation of adrenergic signaling, which promotes tumor growth and progression. However it is unknown how catecholamine levels within the tumor exceed systemic levels in circulation. I hypothesized that neo-innervation of tumors is required for stress-mediated effects on tumor growth.

Results: First, I examined whether sympathetic nerves are present in human ovarian cancer samples as well as orthotopic ovarian cancer models. Immunohistochemical (IHC) staining for neurofilament revealed that catecholaminergic neurons are present within tumor tissue. In order to determine whether chronic stress affects the density of nerves in the tumor, I utilized an orthotopic mouse model of ovarian cancer that was exposed to daily restraint stress. IHC analysis revealed that nerve density in tumors increased by more than three-fold in stressed animals versus non-stressed controls. IHC analysis suggested that this results from both recruitment of existing neurons (axonogenesis) as well as new neuron formation (neurogenesis) within the tumor. To determine how tumors are recruiting nerve growth, I utilized a PCR array analysis of 84 nerve growth related genes and their receptors, which showed that stimulation of the SKOV3 ovarian cancer cell line with norepinephrine (NE) leads to increased expression of several neurotrophins, including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Neurite extension assays showed that media conditioned by ovarian cancer cell lines is capable of inducing neurite outgrowth in differentiated neuron-like PC12 cells, and NE treatment of cancer cells potentiates this effect. Norepinephrine-induced neurite extension was abolished after BDNF silencing by siRNA, suggesting that BDNF is critical to tumor cell-induced nerve growth. in vivo BDNF inhibition resulted in complete abrogation of stress-induced increases in tumor weight and nerve density, as well as downstream markers of stress.

Discussion: These studies indicate that adrenergic signalling induced by chronic stress promotes neo-innervation in the tumor microenvironment. This results in a mutually beneficial relationship between the tumor cells and neurons. This work is crucial for providing a link between chronic stress and its effects on the tumor and its microenvironment. The data shown here aims to open new venues that can be used in development of therapies designed to block the stress effects on tumor growth.


BDNF, chronic stress, neo-innervation, ovarian cancer, biobehavioral stress



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