Role of Cholinergic Receptors in Colorectal Cancer: Potential Therapeutic Implications of Vagus Nerve Stimulation?


Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) patients, such as Crohns disease or ulcerative colitis suffer from chronic and relapsing intestinal inflammation that favours the development of colitis associated cancer (CAC). This inflammation is initiated by aberrant activations of the innate immune responses associated to intestinal barrier defects. The conventional medical therapies consist to decrease the inflammatory response, which also decrease the risk of colon carcinoma but lead to severe side-effects. Recently, a number of animal studies have demonstrated that innate immune responses are attenuated by stimulation of the efferent arm of vagus nerve (VN) through its neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh), that acts on resident macrophages α7 nicotinic receptor (α7 nAChR). ACh also acts as a signalling molecule in epithetlial cells through cholinergic receptors such as nAChR or muscarinic (mAChR) receptors. In the current study, we aimed to extend these findings to CAC prevention by treating human adenocarcinoma cell lines through targeting cholinergic receptors with nicotine (which binds nAChR) and ACh (which binds both cholinergic receptors). Using HT-29 and Caco-2 cell lines, we demonstrated that ACh-induced activation of mAChR results in cell dissociation together with changes in expression and localization of intestinal tight and adherens junction proteins. ACh-induced modulation of cell adhesion proprieties correlates with the acquisition of invasive potential. By contrast, nicotine-mediated activation of nAChR maintains epithelial cell organisation. ACh-released by VN stimulation (VNS) could effectively preserve epithelium integrity thus limiting inflammatory response and tumor development. However, attention should be paid on the nature of the cholinergic receptor solicited. Indeed, regarding to the protective effects of nAChR signalling on epithelial cells, activation of mAChR would worsen the disease and led to increase inflammation. These data have important repercussions on the therapeutic potential of VNS in IBD and CAC, which may represent “the yin and yang” of the intestinal homeostasis.

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M. Pelissier-Rota, M. Lainé, B. Ducarouge, B. Bonaz and M. Jacquier-Sarlin, "Role of Cholinergic Receptors in Colorectal Cancer: Potential Therapeutic Implications of Vagus Nerve Stimulation?," Journal of Cancer Therapy, Vol. 4 No. 6, 2013, pp. 1116-1131. doi: 10.4236/jct.2013.46128.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


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