Li lab Cancer-Neuroscience Laboratory

Small cell lung cancer cells (red) spreading via blood vessels (white) from the lung to the liver of a genetically-engineered mouse model.

Our laboratory combines cancer biology and neuroscience to investigate how tumours communicate with the rest of our body. 

Tumours are made up of both cancer cells and host cells that support the tumour’s growth. Interactions among the different types of cells in the tumour constantly shape the behaviour of the cancer cells, and affect how the disease will progress. 

This means we need to understand how cancer cells communicate with the host or ‘stromal’ cells within the space directly around the tumour, called the tumour microenvironment. But we also need to know how the tumour communicates with the rest of the body. 

The immune systems controls part of the conversation, and this piece of the system is relatively extensively-studied at the moment. However, the neuroscience aspects of cancer biology remain mostly unexplored. Our lab uses genetically-engineered mouse models (GEMMs) and GEMM-derived tissue culture systems to answer the following questions: What are the roles of neuronal signaling pathways in cancer? Do cancer cells ‘communicate’ with our body through the nervous system, and if so, how? Finally, can we interfere with these ‘communications’ to treat cancer?

One of the major model systems we use is small cell lung cancer (SCLC), a highly aggressive neuroendocrine tumour which metastasizes early and has very limited treatment options. By learning more about the relationship between cancer and neuroscience, we hope to develop potential new treatments for SCLC, and eventually for cancers in general.