In the tumor microenvironment, various stromal and immune cells accumulate and interact with cancer cells to contribute to tumor progression. Among stromal players, nerves have recently been recognized as key regulators of tumor growth. More neurotransmitters, such as catecholamines and acetylcholine (ACh), are present in tumors, as the cells that secrete neurotransmitters accumulate by the release of neurotrophic factors from cancer cells. In this short review, we focus on the role of nerve signaling in gastrointestinal (GI) cancers. Given that muscarinic acetylcholine receptor signaling seems to be a dominant regulator of GI stem cells and cancers, we review the function and mechanism of the muscarinic ACh pathway as a regulator of GI cancer progression. Accumulating evidence suggests that ACh, which is secreted from nerves and tuft cells, stimulates GI epithelial stem cells and contributes to cancer progression via muscarinic receptors.
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