Anyone who reads these pages will long ago, I trust, have been persuaded that the molecular biology of cells is fascinating, beautiful and utterly absorbing – and all that is still true even when something goes wrong and cancers make their unwelcome appearance. Which makes cancer a brilliant topic to talk and write about – you know your audience will be captivated (well, unless you’re utterly hopeless). There’s only one snag, namely that – perhaps because of the unwelcome nature of cancers – it’s tough to make jokes. One of the best reviews I had for Betrayed by Nature was terrifically nice about it but at the end, presumably feeling that he had to balance things up, the reviewer commented that it: “..is perhaps a little too light-hearted at times…” Thank you so much anonymous critic! Crikey! If I’d been trying to do slap-stick I’d have bunged in a few of those lewd chemicals – a touch of erectone, a bit of PORN, etc. (btw, the former is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat arthritis and the latter is poly-ornithinine, so calm down).
I guess my serious referee may have spotted that I included a poem – well, two actually, one written by the great JBS Haldane in 1964 when he discovered he had bowel cancer which begins:
I wish I had the voice of Homer
To sing of rectal carcinoma,
Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact,
Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked.
Those couplets may reflect much of JBS with whom I can’t compete but, nevertheless, in Betrayed by Nature I took a deep breath and had a go at an update that began:
Long gone are the days of Homer
But not so those of carcinoma,
Of sarcoma and leukemia
And other cancers familia.
But nowadays we meet pre-school
That great and wondrous Molecule.
We know now from the knee of Mater
That DNA’s the great creator.
and went on:
But DNA makes cancer too
Time enough—it’ll happen to you.
“No worries sport” as some would say,
These days it’s “omics” all the way.
So heed the words of JBS
Who years ago, though in distress,
Gave this advice on what to do
When something odd happens to you:
“Take blood and bumps to your physician
Whose only aim is your remission.”
I’d rather forgotten my poem until in just the last week there hit the press a story illustrating that although cancer mayn’t be particularly fertile ground for funnies it does gloriously uplifting like nothing else. It was an account of how science and medicine had come together at Great Ormond Street Hospital to save a life and it was even more thrilling because the life was that of a little girl just two years old. The saga brought my poem to mind and it seemed, though I say it myself, rather spot on.
The little girl, Layla, was three months old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) caused by a piece of her DNA misbehaving by upping sticks and moving to a new home on another chromosome – one way in which genetic damage can lead to cancer. By her first birthday chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant had failed and the only remaining option appeared to be palliative care. At this point the GOSH team obtained special dispensation to try a novel immunotherapy using what are being called “designer immune cells“. Over a few months Layla recovered and is now free of cancer. However, there are no reports of Waseem Qasim and his colleagues at GOSH and at University College London dancing and singing the Trafalgar Square fountains – they’re such a reserved lot these scientists and doctors.
How did they do it?
In principle they used the gene therapy approach that, helpfully, we described recently (Self Help Part 2). T cells isolated from a blood sample have novel genes inserted into their DNA and are grown in the lab before infusing into the patient. The idea is to improve the efficiency with which the T cells target a particular protein (CD19) present on the surface of the leukemia cells by giving them artificial T cell receptors (also known as chimeric T cell receptors or chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) – because they’re made by fusing several bits together to make something that sticks to the target ‘antigen’ – CD19). The engineered receptors thereby boost the immune response against the leukemia. The new genetic material is inserted into a virus that carries it into the cells. So established is this method that you can buy such modified cells from the French biotech company Cellectis.
Adoptive cell transfer immunotherapy. T cells are isolated from a blood sample and novel genes inserted into their DNA. The GOSH treatment also uses gene editing by TALENs to delete two genes. The engineered T cells are expanded, selected and then infused into the patient.
Is that all?
Not quite. To give themselves a better chance the team added a couple of extra tricks. First they included in the virus a second gene, RQR8, that encodes two proteins – this helps with identifying and selecting the modified cells. The second ploy is, perhaps, the most exciting of all: they used gene editing – a rapidly developing field that permits DNA in cells to be modified directly: it really amounts to molecular cutting and pasting. Also called ‘genome editing’ or ‘genome editing with engineered nucleases’ (GEEN), this form of genetic engineering removes or inserts sections of DNA, thereby modifying the genome.
The ‘cutting’ is done by proteins (enzymes called nucleases) that snip both strands of DNA – creating double-strand breaks. So nucleases are ‘molecular scissors.’ Once a double-strand break has been made the built-in systems of cells swing into action to repair the damage (i.e. stick the DNA back together as best it can without worrying about any snipped bits – these natural processes are homologous recombination and non-homologous end-joining, though we don’t need to bother about them here).
To be of any use the nucleases need to be targeted – made to home in on a specific site (DNA sequence) – and for this the GOSH group used ‘transcription activator-like effectors’ (TALEs). The origins of these proteins could hardly be further away from cancer – they come from a family of bacteria that attacks hundreds of different types of plants from cotton to fruit and nut trees, giving rise to things like citrus canker and black rot. About six years ago Jens Boch of the Martin-Luther-University in Halle and Adam Bogdanove at Iowa State University with their colleagues showed that these bugs did their dirty deeds by binding to regulatory regions of DNA thereby changing the expression of genes, hence affecting cell behavior. It turned out that their specificity came from a remarkably simple code formed by the amino acids of TALE proteins. From that it’s a relatively simple step to make artificial TALE proteins to target precise stretches of DNA and to couple them to a nuclease to do the cutting. The whole thing makes a TALEN (transcription activator-like effector nuclease). TALE proteins work in pairs (i.e. they bind as dimers on a target DNA site) so an artificial TALEN is like using both your hands to grip a piece of wood either side of the point where, using your third hand, you make the cut. The DNA that encodes the whole thing is inserted into plasmids that are transfected into the target cells; the expressed gene products then enter the nucleus to work on the host cell’s genome. There are currently three other approaches to nuclease engineering (zinc finger nucleases, the CRISPR/Cas system and meganucleases) but we can leave them for another time.
The TALENs made by the GOSH group knocked out the T cell receptor (to eliminate the risk of an immune reaction against the engineered T cells (called graft-versus-host disease) and CD52 (encodes a protein on the surface of mature lymphocytes that is the target of the monoclonal antibody alemtuzumab – so this drug can be used to prevent rejection by the host without affecting the engineered T cells).
This wonderful result is not a permanent cure for Layla but it appears to be working to stave off the disease whilst she awaits a matched T cell donor. It’s worth noting that a rather similar approach has been used with some success in treating HIV patients but it should be born in mind that, brilliant though these advances are, they are not without risks – for example, it’s possible that the vector (virus) that delivers DNA might have long-term effects – only time will tell.
Almost the most important thing in this story is what the GOSH group didn’t do. They used the TALENs gene editing method to knock out genes but it’s also a way of inserting new DNA. All you need to do is add double-stranded DNA fragments in the correct form at the same time and the cell’s repair system will incorporate them into the genome. That offers the possibility of being able to repair DNA damage that has caused loss of gene function – a major factor in almost all cancers. Although there is still no way of tackling the associated problem of how to target gene editing to tumour cells, it may be that Layla’s triumph is a really significant step for cancer therapy.
Smith, J. et al. (2015). UCART19, an allogeneic “off-the-shelf” adoptive T-cell immunotherapy against CD19+ B-cell leukemias. Journal of Clinical Oncology 33, 2015 (suppl; abstr 3069).