Blocking chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy by preserving axons

Lead Research Organisation: Babraham Institute
Department Name: Signalling


Axons are long 'wires' that conduct electrical signals from one nerve cell (neuron) to another, or convey signals from sense organs or to muscles. Their extreme length (up to one meter) makes them vulnerable to many stresses, including inherited disorders, toxins, inflammation, viruses and physical injury. This results in disorders such as multiple sclerosis, diabetic neuropathy, motor neuron disease and glaucoma. Significant progress has been made in mice in understanding how axon degeneration can be prevented, or at least delayed, in response to many of these stresses and our group has played a prominent role in this work. However, until now it has not been clear how this could be translated for application in patients.

One of the problems is that many of the stresses axons face are chronic and/or unpredictable. Long-term protection of axons, or protection at an unforeseen time, will always be more challenging that protecting them for a few days or weeks at a known time. One important disorder that fits this latter pattern is chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN). CIPN is a dose-limiting side effect of many cancer drugs, causing intense pain. Most recipients of these cancer treatments suffer from it and around half of survivors continue to suffer afterwards, many for the rest of their lives. Recurrent stabbing, burning or tingling sensations, or numbness, particularly in hands and feet, regularly disrupt sleep and greatly reduce quality of life. Importantly, despite the long-term nature of the problem it stems from a very short and predictable treatment regime that causes axon degeneration. CIPN is an excellent candidate for preventative therapy.

This project has three parts. First, we will build on encouraging data from mouse and cell culture studies indicating that a protein we have studied for many years protects axons in CIPN models. We will extend the previous studies by testing whether it preserves axons from damage by a wider range of chemotherapy drugs, whether it protects them indefinitely and whether it reduces the pain in addition to blocking axon degeneration. Second, we recently identified a drug that preserves axons by mimicking an effect of the protective gene, so we will test whether this drug preserves axons and prevents symptoms in CIPN animal models. Importantly, this drug is already in use in man (in clinical trials for cancer in fact) so if successful here, tests to determine whether it preserves axons in man could proceed quickly. Third, we aim to find out more about the mechanism that underlies the axon degeneration leading to CIPN. In particular, we focus on the transport of essential proteins and organelles along nerves, termed axonal transport, a process known to be disrupted by some cancer drugs. We will ask whether this is common to several drugs that induce CIPN, in what way is the transport disrupted, and what are the immediate consequences that lead to axon degeneration, an area in which our expertise in this field should ensure good progress. This will help us to develop further strategies to preserve axons in CIPN.

Success in this project would be important for preventing the neurological complications that can result from cancer therapy. However, it should also be important in indicating how we might tackle other major axonal disorders. Diabetic neuropathy, which shares many symptoms with CIPN and affects over 1 million people in the UK, would be one excellent example. Multiple sclerosis, in which axons also come under temporary stress during inflammatory relapses, would be another. Until now there are no preventative therapies for any axonal disorders. By focusing on a disorder with a relatively straightforward mechanism, good animal models, and a very realistic likelihood of developing a therapy, it should be possible to make significant progress that provides important leads also for other important axonal diseases.

Technical Summary

Axon degeneration plays a prominent, early role in many neurodegenerative conditions. Despite substantial progress in preserving axons in mice, translation remains a key challenge. This project focuses on chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) as a particularly tractable and important disorder, and has wider implications for other peripheral neuropathies such as diabetic neuropathy, and for other disorders with axonal transport disruption such as multiple sclerosis and glaucoma.

CIPN is a neuropathic pain disorder experienced by 50-90% of cancer chemotherapy patients and a dose-limiting side effect. It is caused by axon loss during a treatment period lasting only days or weeks, but becomes a lifelong condition for around half of survivors. Quality of life is greatly reduced by chronic pain, burning, tingling and sleep disturbance and current therapies are palliative and inadequate. A prophylactic treatment is urgently needed to protect axons and thereby prevent or minimise CIPN.

The underlying mechanism in CIPN is believed to involve axonal transport impairment. Other mechanisms have been proposed but this model fits with the ability of the slow Wallerian degeneration protein (WldS) to preserve axons in two CIPN models. However, important questions remain. We have made significant advances in understanding why axons degenerate when axonal transport is impaired. We have developed tools for quantitative live imaging of axonal transport in peripheral nerves, for investigating axon degeneration mechanisms and for blocking axon degeneration genetically and pharmacologically when transport is impaired. Here, we will apply these to CIPN models to test whether axons can be permanently rescued, whether this is effective in vivo for a wider range of CIPN-inducing drugs, whether neuropathic pain is reduced, what this tells us about the degeneration mechanism and whether we can block this axon degeneration pharmacologically.

Planned Impact

The potential non-academic beneficiaries of this project are:

(1) Pharma/biotech companies targeting axonal disorders in general and CIPN specifically. Axon degeneration is a significant event in most neurodegenerative diseases, including some which are highly prevalent and therefore represent major market opportunities for the commercial sector: Alzheimer's disease (lifetime risk 15%), stroke (15%), diabetic neuropathy (7%), glaucoma (2%) and Parkinson's disease (1.5%). Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, a dose-limiting side effect of cancer treatments such as paclitaxel and vincristine, often resulting in lifelong pain is the major potential application of this knowledge. There is currently no effective method to prevent this axon loss and this application has clear therapeutic potential in this area. As explained in 'pathways to impact' we will actively engage the commercial sector to ensure this potential is realized.

(2) Patients with neurodegenerative disorders and cancer survivors. Prophylactic treatment during cancer chemotherapy should be able to prevent the occurrence of CIPN sparing up to several million cancer survivors worldwide from lifelong pain. It may also boost the efficacy of cancer treatment itself by allowing higher or longer doses before this limiting side effect appears. In most neurodegenerative disease, when axons fall below a threshold number every additional axon lost increases the severity of symptoms. Thus, a prophylactic therapy for multiple sclerosis relapses or progressive MS, or other disorders could also have a major impact on their future quality of life.

(3) Lay public interested in nervous system function. In our public engagement activities we find a strong interest in the nervous system among the lay public. While there is only a limited amount that individuals can do about the health of their nervous system, understanding what goes wrong can at least help some patients to come to terms with it, and motivates some healthy individuals to ensure they avoid a lifestyle that places strains on axon survival (e.g., excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, drug abuse).
Description Wellcome Collaborative Award in Science: Preventable axon degeneration in human disease
Amount £3,500,000 (GBP)
Funding ID 220906/Z/20/Z 
Organisation Wellcome Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2021 
End 03/2026
Description AH 
Organisation Johns Hopkins University
Department School of Medicine Johns Hopkins
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Exchange of knowledge on axonal transport measurements
Collaborator Contribution Training in peripheral neuropathy and pain models
Impact Standardisation of research methods between our groups so data is more easily compared between us. Training in peripheral neuropathy and pain models.
Start Year 2014
Description Giuseppe Orsomando 
Organisation Marche Polytechnic University
Country Italy 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Expertise and material from axon degeneration models
Collaborator Contribution Expertise in measurement of NAD-related metabolites and enzyme assays
Impact Carpi, F.M., Cortese, M., Orsomando, G., Polzonetti, V., Vincenzetti, S., Moreschini, B., Coleman, M.P., and Magni, G. (2018). Simultaneous quantification of nicotinamide mononucleotide and related pyridine compounds in mouse tissues by UHPLC-MS/MS. Sep Sci plus. 1(1):22-30. -- Di Stefano, M., Loreto A., Orsomando, G., Mori V., Zamporlini, F., Hulse, R.P., Webster, J., Donaldson, L.F., Gering, M., Raffaelli, N., Coleman, M.P., Gilley, J., and Conforti L. (2017). NMN deamidase delays Wallerian degeneration and rescues axonal defects caused by NMNAT2 deficiency in vivo. Current Biology. 27(6):784-794
Start Year 2016
Description Prof Ahmet Hoke sabbatical 
Organisation Johns Hopkins University
Department School of Medicine Johns Hopkins
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The Coleman Lab is hosting Professor Ahmet Hoke for a sabbatical visit allowing new collaboration between our teams. In particular, for example, his contribution will be invaluable to the work of one of our PhD students.
Collaborator Contribution Johns Hopkins School of Medicine is contributing through Professor Hoke's participation in our research.
Impact We anticipate various outputs from this new collaboration in the discipline of neuroscience.
Start Year 2020
Description Prof Richard Piercy 
Organisation Royal Veterinary College (RVC)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Expertise in measuring axonal transport
Collaborator Contribution Expertise in equine veterinary science; nerve samples from horses
Impact Dr Robert Adalbert will start a two-year collaboration project with Prof Richard Piercy's group in RVC.
Start Year 2017
Description Cambridge Science Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Lots of interest in our axon transport exhibit

Exhibit has been used at multiple events since, including pint of science and school visits
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Lay talk to non-research staff Clinical School (University of Cambridge) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Accessible talk on Alzheimer's disease by Dr. Claire Durrant: 'Brains in dishes. What can they tell us about Alzheimer's disease?'
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Talk at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Presentation to 40 6th form students. Title: The nervous system: the life and death of cells inside your head.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018