Cockles and Mussels, Alive, Alive-O!

And so they are across the globe, not forgetting clams, a term that can cover all bivalve molluscs – a huge number of species (over 15,000), all having a two-part, hinged shell. The body inside doesn’t have a backbone, making it soft and edible on a scale of keeping-you-alive to orgasmic, depending on the consumer – oysters and scallops are part of the family.

Bivalves are particularly common on rocky and sandy coasts where they potter happily along, generally burrowing into sediment although some of them, scallops for instance, can swim. By and large their only problem is that humans like to eat them.

Clamming up

However, it gradually emerged in the 1970s that there was another cloud hovering over some of these gastronomic delights. Their commercial importance had drawn attention to the fact that soft-shell clams living along the east coast of North America, together with mussels on the west coast and cockles in Ireland, were dying in large numbers. The cause was an unusual type of cancer in which leukemia-like cells reproduce until they turn the blood milky and the animals die, in effect, from asphyxiation. In soft-shell clams, also known as sand gapers and steamers, the disease has spread over 1,500 km from Chesapeake Bay to Prince Edward Island.

A 2009 study had shown that as the disease progresses there is a rise in the number of blood cells that have abnormally high amounts of DNA (in clams typically four times the normal number of chromosomes – i.e. they’re tetraploid). In parallel with this change the cells make increasing amounts of an enzyme called reverse transcriptase (RT).

That was pretty surprising as RT does what its name suggests: reverses part of the central dogma of molecular biology (DNA makes RNA makes protein) by using RNA as a template to make DNA. RT is usually carried by viruses whose hereditary material is RNA (rather than DNA – so they’re called retroviruses). As part of their life cycle they turn their genomes into DNA that inserts into the host’s genome – which gets reproduced (as RNA) to make more viruses.

But how did RT get into clams? Enter Michael Metzger and Stephen Goff from Columbia University in New York, together with Carol Reinisch and James Sherry from Environment Canada, who began to unravel the mystery.

Jumping genes

Using high throughput sequencing they showed that clam genomes contain stretches of about 5,000 bases that came about when the RNA of a virus was copied into DNA by RT (reverse transcriptase) and then inserted into the host chromosome. Normal clams have from two to ten copies of this ‘repetitive element’ that Metzger & Co dubbed Steamer. That wasn’t too surprising as we have repetitive DNA too – it makes up about half the human genome. Many of these repeated sequences can move around within the genome – they’re often called ‘jumping genes’ – and it’s easy to see how this can happen when RT uses RNA to make DNA that can then pop into new sites in the genome. And you might guess that this process could damage the host DNA in ways that might lead to disease.

A long jump?

It turned out that the diseased clams had suffered massive amplification of Steamer to the extent that they carry 150 to 300 copies of the sequence. So that’s about 30 times as many Steamer DNAs being scattered across the clam genome – but how could that cause the same disease all the way from New York to Prince Edward Island? The answer came from peering into the DNA sequences of the tumour cells: they were virtually identical to each other – but they were different to those of their hosts! Meaning? The damage that led to leukemia, caused by shoe-horning 100s of extra copies of Steamer into clam genomes, only occurred once. And the staggering implication of that finding is that the cancer spread from a single ‘founder’ clam throughout these marine-dwelling molluscs. The resemblance to the way the cancer spreads in Tasmanian devils is striking.

Fishier and fishier

Fast forward to June 2016 and the latest contribution from the Metzger group reporting four more examples of transmissible cancer in bivalves – in mussels from British Columbia, in golden carpet shell clams from the Spanish coast and two forms in cockles.

Each appears to cause the same type of leukemia previously found in clams. The disease appears to be transmitted ‘horizontally’, i.e. by living cancer cells, descended from a single common ancestor, passing directly from one animal to another. Indeed, if you transplant blood cells from infected animals into normal clams they get leukemia.

 Species hopping

All that is quite amazing but the genetic analysis came up with an even more bizarre finding. In the golden carpet shell clams DNA from cancer cells showed no match with normal DNA from this species. It was clearly derived from a different species, which turned out to be the pullet shell clam – a species that, by and large doesn’t get cancer. So they have presumably come up with a way of resisting a cancer that arose in them, whilst at the same time being able to pass live tumour cells on to another species!!clam-transfer-pic

Cancer cell transmission between different species of shellfish. Cancer cells can arise in one species (pullet shell clams) that do not themselves develop leukemia but are able to pass live cells to another species (golden carpet shell clams) that do get leukemia (Metzger et al. 2016).

We have no idea how the cancer cells survive transfer. It seems most likely that they are taken up through the siphons that molluscs use for feeding, respiration, etc. and then somehow get across the walls of the respiratory/digestive systems. In the first step they would have to survive exposure to sea water which contains a lot more salt than cells are happy in. The ‘isotonic’ saline used in drips to infuse patients contains 0.9% salt whereas seawater, with 3.5%, is ‘hypertonic’ – cells put in a hypertonic solution will shrink as water is drawn out of the cell into the surrounding solution. Presumably the cells shrivel up a bit but some at least take this in their stride and recover to reproduce in their new host. Equally obscure is how a species can protect itself from a cancer that it can pass to another species.

These amazing findings throw a different light on the care-free underwater life depicted in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, in which the popular song ‘Under the Sea’ fails to mention floating cancer.

Can this happen to us?!!

Well, not as far as we know. But the fact that the known number of cancers that can be passed from one animal to another has now risen to nine does make you wonder. However, there’s no evidence that it happens in humans in anything like the normal course of events. There are examples of person-to-person transfer, notably during organ transplantation, and there is one recent case of cancerous cells from a tapeworm colonising a human host. But these are very rare, the latter occurring in a patient with a severely weakened immune system, and there is no example of spread beyond two people.

Phew! What a relief! So now we can concentrate on following developments both in Tasmania and beneath the waves in the hope that, not only can we go on satisfying our lust for clam bakes and chowders, but that these incredible creatures will reveal secrets that will benefit mankind.


AboElkhair, M. et al. (2009). Reverse transcriptase activity associated with haemic neoplasia in the soft-shell clam Mya arenaria. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms 84, 57-63.

Arriagada, G. et al. (2014). Activation of transcription and retrotransposition of a novel retroelement, Steamer, in neoplastic hemocytes of the mollusk Mya arenaria. PNAS 2014 111 (39) 14175-14180; published ahead of print September 8, 2014, doi:10.1073/pnas.1409945111.

Metzger, M.J. et al. (2015). Horizontal Transmission of Clonal Cancer Cells Causes Leukemia in Soft-Shell Clams. Cell 161, 255–263.

Metzger, M.J. et al. (2016). Widespread transmission of independent cancer lineages within multiple bivalve species. Nature 534, 705–709.

Muehlenbachs, A. et al. (2015). Malignant Transformation of Hymenolepis nana in a Human Host. N Engl J Med 2015; 373:1845-1852.


Another Peek At The Poor Little Devils

A couple of years ago (July 2014) I wrote a piece called Heir of the Dog that featured Tasmanian devils. The size of a small dog, these iconic little chaps are the largest meat-eating marsupials in the world. I’d run into them at The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane where they’re keeping company with the dozy, furry tree-climbers as part of a programme to save them – the devils, that is – from extinction by cancer.


A Tasmanian devil. Photo: Animal Fact Guide









imgresTheir problem comes from their inclination to bite one another, thereby directly passing on living cancer cells (causing devil facial tumour disease – DFTD). At that time the only other known example of transmissible cancer was a rare disease in dogs (canine transmissible venereal tumour – CTVT).

Genetic archaeology

DNA sequencing (i.e. whole genome analysis) had shown that the sexually transmitted dog disease probably arose thousands of years ago in a wolf or East Asian breed of dog and that the descendants of those cells are now present in infected dogs around the world.

The same approach applied to the Tasmanian devil showed that the cancer first arose in a female. Cells derived from that original tumour have subsequently spread through the Tasmanian population, the clone evolving (i.e. genetically diverging) over time. In contrast to the canine disease, DFTD is probably not more than 20 years old. Nevertheless, it spread through the wild population to the extent that the species was listed as endangered in 2008 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Which is why a lot of effort is going into saving them, one approach being a number of breeding programmes in mainland Australia, with the aim of transferring uninfected animals to Tasmania.

One good turn …?

We’re all in favour of saving the little fellows, even if you probably wouldn’t want one as a pet. But, smelly and ferocious as he is, the Tasmanian devil is turning out to be remarkable in ways that suggest they might repay our efforts to keep them going. Things have moved apace down under with Greg Woods, Ruth Pye, Elizabeth Murchison, Andrew Storfer and colleagues from the Universities of Tasmania, Cambridge, Southampton and Washington State making some remarkable discoveries.

Infected animals do indeed develop the most unpleasant, large tumours that are virtually 100% fatal – to the extent that DFTD has wiped out 80% of Tasmanian devils in just 20 years. But some animals survive, even though models of the epidemiology say they shouldn’t. Andrew Storfer’s group asked how they pulled off this trick by looking for genetic changes in almost 300 devils. Quite amazingly, they found that even in a period as short as 20 years there were seven different genes that appeared to have changed (i.e. mutated) in response to selection imposed by the disease. Five of these genes encode proteins known to be associated with cancer risk or the immune system in other mammals, including humans. It seems that the mutations help their immune system to adapt so that it can recognize and destroy tumour cells.

In parallel with those studies, Greg Woods and his team now have a vaccine that looks promising early in trials – in other words a way of boosting natural immunity. We are only just beginning to find ways of giving the human immune system a helping hand – hence the burgeoning field of immunotherapy – so anything that works in another animal might give some useful pointers for us.

sick-tasTasmanian devil facial tumour disease.

This has killed 80% of the wild Australian animals in just a few decades.

Photograph: Menna Jones.

As if that wasn’t enough, a second strain of cancer has been found in a small group of male Tasmanian devils. It causes fatal facial tumours that look much the same as the first DFTD. However, it has a completely different genetic cause – so different in fact that it carries a Y chromosome, clear indication that the two forms of the disease arose by quite distinct mechanisms – which makes this marsupial the only species known to be affected by two types of transmissible of cancer.

Milk and human kindness

On top of all that some brave souls at Sydney University, Emma Peel and Menna Jones, decided in that way that scientists do, to collect some milk from the ferocious furries, just to see if it was interesting. Astonishingly the marsupial milk contained small proteins (peptides) that could kill a variety of bugs. They’re called cathelicidins and one of the things they can target is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – MRSA – one of the dreaded ‘superbugs’ that are resistant to penicillin and other antibiotics. It’s not clear whether these peptides help to protect the devils from cancer but if that’s how turns out it might be incredibly important for us. As for their antibiotic potential, well, as it’s predicted that by 2050 superbugs will be killing one of us every three seconds you could say that opportunity beckons.

So that’s all incredibly exciting – and not just for the Tassie devils. ­ But another reason for returning to this story is that the devils have recently been joined by another example of extraordinary cancer transmission – and this one comes from the last place on the planet that you’d look for it ….


Murchison, E.P. et al. (2012). Genome Sequencing and Analysis of the Tasmanian Devil and Its Transmissible Cancer. Cell 148, 780–791.

Pye, R.J. et al. (2016). A second transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 113, 374–379.

Epstein, B. et al. (2016). Rapid evolutionary response to a transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 12684: doi:10.1038/ncomms12684.

Peel, E. et al. (2016). Cathelicidins in the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii). Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 35019. doi:10.1038/srep35019.

How Does DNA Do It?

Last time we left you with the mother of all molecular cliffhangers: how can it be that the simple four-letter code of DNA can carry the information to make all life? Early in that piece we’d thrown in the fact that the human genome (i.e. our DNA) is made up of three billion letters. As Watson and Crick showed 53 years ago, it’s actually two intertwined molecules, each with three thousand million letters – but it’s the number that’s important because that carries all that’s needed to make you and me.

dnaBut, if you’re like me, you have real problems grasping the meaning of numbers much above 100 – so that ‘millions’, yet alone ‘billions’, come across simply as ‘lots’– and we’re left shaking in our head in bewilderment as to how it works.

A different angle

To get some sort of a grip on the scale of information that genomes can carry, it might be helpful to look at DNA from the other end, so to speak. This approach started five years ago among a group who work on applying computer technology to handling biological data – i.e. how to acquire, store, analyse and interpret the tsunami of genetic information now being produced. It’s a new field called bioinformatics.

What set the bioinformatics bods thinking is a point that will have occurred to you as an internet user (and who isn’t?). How can we deal with the unimaginable amount of info we want to store? That includes everything from your holiday snaps to the tons of scientific data, including the continuing flood of genomics. If ‘millions’ leaves you boggling, how about the estimate for the global digital archive of 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020 (I think that’s 44 followed by 21 zeros). That’s a 10-fold increase from 2013.

Whatever the numbers are, they’re unimaginable but, aside from being boggled by the facts, a slight problem is that storing that amount on conventional memory sticks would use at least 10 times the amount of available silicon. So, as they say, we have a problem.

DNA to the rescue?

The boffins worked out that if you could use the storage capacity of DNA as efficiently as possible, the length you’d need to squeeze in all those trilla-bytes would correspond to about a kilogram of DNA. Put another way, the storage density of DNA is 1000 times that of flash memories. How would that work? Well, in principle it’s a simple, four-step process:

  1. Convert text to binary code (ones and zeroes)
  2. Convert binary code to triplet code (called ‘trits’: zeroes, ones and twos of a 3-digit code)
  3. Use trit code to make DNA (0, 1 or 2 translated into a base, A,T,G or C, that differs from the one just used.
  4. DNA made in overlapping fragments (to give 4 copies of each piece of code)

Plain sailing?

One of the first experiments encoded Shakespeare’s sonnets in DNA, which showed that the idea was feasible – what scientists call a ‘proof of principle’. Of course, that’s only a beginning. There are big problems to overcome, like being able to make DNA strands cheaply and quickly enough and to be able to access the data required with the ease we’re used to with hard drives and flash memories. On the flip side, DNA preserved in permafrost has been sequenced from woolly mammoths tens of thousands of years old and from horses entombed for 700,000 years, so we know that as a storage medium it’s rather more durable than anything currently in use.

For the record

The key point here is that, at the moment, DNA appears to be the only option if we are not to grind to a halt on the information storage front. Regardless of solving the problems involved, that alone gives a new perspective to the coding power of those four little bases, A, C, G and T.


Extance, A. (2016). How DNA could store all the world’s data. Nature 537, 22–24.

Goldman, N. et al. (2013). Nature 494, 77-80.

Orlando, L. et al. (2013). Nature 499, 74-78.

Long-live the Revolutions!!

There’s a general view that most folk don’t know much about science and, because almost day by day, science plays a more prominent role in our lives, that’s considered to be a Bad Thing. Us scientists are therefore always being told to get off our backsides and spread the word – and I try to do my bit in Betrayed by Nature, in Secret of Life (a new book shortly to be published) and in these follow-up blogs.

We may be making some progress – and, I have to admit, television has probably done more than me – though I am available (t.v. & movie head honchos please note). As one piece of evidence you could cite the way ‘DNA’ has become part of the universal lexicon, albeit often nonsensically. As evidence I call Sony Corp. Chief Executive Kazuo Hirai, as reported in The Wall Street Journal: “I’ve said this from day one. Some things at Sony are literally written into our DNA …”

Well, of course, that’s gibberish Kazuo old bean – but we know what you mean. Or do we? Most probably couldn’t tell you what the acronym stands for – but that doesn’t matter if they can explain that it’s the stuff (a ‘molecule’ would be better still!) that carries the information of inheritance and, as such, is responsible for all life. Go to the top of the class those who add that the code is in the form of chemicals called bases and there are just four of them (A, C, G & T). Something that simple doesn’t seem enough for all life but the secret is lies in the vast lengths of DNA involved. The human genome, for example, is made up of three billion letters.

A little bit of what is now history …

In the mid-1980s a number of scientists from around the world began to talk about the possibility of working out the sequence of letters that make up human DNA and thus identifying and mapping all the genes encoded by the human genome. From this emerged The Human Genome Project, a massive international collaboration, conceived in 1984 and completed in 2003. I quite often refer to this achievement as the ‘Greatest Revolution’ – meaning the biggest technical advance in the history of biology.

As that fantastic enterprise steadily advanced to its triumphant conclusion, it was accompanied by a series of mini-revolutions in technology that sky-rocketed the speed of sequencing and slashed the cost – the combined effect being an increase the efficiency of the whole process of more than 100 million-fold.

Brings us to the present …

These quite astonishing developments have continued since 2003 such that by 2009 it was possible to sequence 12 individuals in one study. By August 2016 groups from all over the world, coming together under the banner of The Exome Aggregation Consortium (ExAC), have raised the stakes 5,000-fold by sequencing no fewer than 60,706 individuals.

The name of the outfit tells you that there’s what you might think of as a very small swizz here: they didn’t sequence all the DNA, just the regions that code for proteins (exomes) – only about 1% of the three billion letters. But what highlights the power of current methods is not only the huge number of individuals sequenced but the depth of coverage – that is, the number of times each base (letter) in each individual exome was sequenced. In effect, it’s doing the same experiment so many times that errors are eliminated. Thus even genetic variants in just one person can be picked out.


Sequence variants between individuals. For most proteins the stretches of genomic DNA that encode their sequence  are split into regions called exons. All the expressed genes in a genome make up the exomeBy repeated sequencing The Exome Aggregation Consortium have shown that genetic variants in even one person can be reliably identified. Variants from the normal sequence found in four people are shown in red, bold letters.

It turns out that there are about 7.5 million variants and they pop up remarkably often – at one in every eight sites (bases). About half only occur once (which illustrates why DNA fingerprinting, aka DNA profiling, is so sensitive). As Jay Shendure put it, this gives us a “glimpse of the bottom of the well of genetic variation in humans.”

One of the major results of this study is that, by filtering out common variants from those associated with specific diseases, it will help to pin down the causes of Mendelian diseases (i.e. genetic disorders caused by change or alteration in a single gene, e.g., cystic fibrosis, haemophilia, sickle-cell anaemia, phenylketonuria). It’s clear that, over the next ten years, tens of millions of human genomes will be sequenced which will reveal the underlying causes of the thousands of genetic disorders.

The prize … and the puzzle

The technology is breathtaking, the amount of information being accumulated beyond comprehension. Needless to say, private enterprise has leapt on the bandwagon and you can now get your genome sequenced by, for example, 23andMe who offer “a personalised DNA service providing information and tools for individuals to learn about and explore their DNA. Find out if you are at risk for passing on an inherited condition, who you’re related to etc.” All for a mere $199!!

But you could say that the endpoint – the reason for grappling with DNA in the first place – is easy to see: eventually we will be able to define the molecular drivers of all genetic diseases and from that will follow ever improving methods of treatment and prevention.

Nevertheless, in that wonderful world I suspect we will still find ourselves brought up short by the underlying question: how one earth does DNA manage to carry the information necessary for all life?

For those who like to ponder such things, in the next piece we’ll try to help by looking at DNA from a different angle.


Ng, SB. et al. (2009). Nature 461, 272-276.

Lek, M. et al. (2016). Analysis of protein-coding genetic variation in 60,706 humans. Nature 536, 285–291.

Re-writing the Manual of Life

A little while ago we talked about a fantastic triumph by a team at Great Ormond Street Hospital (Gosh! Wonderful GOSH) in using a form of immunotherapy to save a little girl. What they did was to take the T cells from a sample of her blood and use gene editing – molecular cutting and pasting – to remove some genes and add others before growing more of the cells and then putting them back into the patient.

Gene editing – genetic engineering that removes or inserts sections of DNA – uses engineered nucleases, enzymes that snip DNA but do so in a controlled way by homing in on a specific site (i.e. a defined sequence of As, Cs, Gs and Ts).

We mentioned that there are four main ways of doing this kind of engineering – the GOSH group used ‘transcription activator-like effectors’ (TALEs). However, the method that has made the biggest headlines is called CRISPR/Cas, and it has been very much in the news because a legal battle is underway to determine who did what in its development and who, therefore, will be first in line for a Nobel Prize.

Fortunately we can ignore such base pursuits and look instead at where this technology might be taking us.

What is CRISPR/Cas?

CRISPRs (pronounced crispers) are bits of DNA that contain short repetitions of base sequence, each next to a ‘spacer’ sequence. The spacers have accumulated in bacteria as a defence mechanism – they’re part of the bacterial immune system – and they’re identical to sequences found in viruses that infect microbes. In other words, the cunning bugs pick up bits of dangerous viruses to make a rogues gallery so they can recognize and attack those viruses next time they pop in.

Close to CRISPR sit genes encoding Cas proteins (enzymes that cut DNA, so they’re ‘nucleases’). When the CRISPR-spacer DNA is read by the machinery of the cell to make RNA, the spacer regions stick to Cas proteins and the whole complex, including the viral sequences, can roam the cell seeking a virus with genetic material that matches the CRISPR RNA. The CRISPR RNA sticks to the virus and Cas chops its DNA – end of virus. So Cas, by binding to CRISPR RNA, becomes an RNA-guided DNA cutter.


CRISPR-CAS: Bug defence against invaders. Viruses can attack bacteria just as they can human cells. Over time bugs have evolved a cunning defence strategy: they insert short bits of viral DNA into their own genome (above). These contain repeated sequences of bases and each is followed by short segments of ‘spacer DNA’ (above). This happens next to DNA that encodes Cas proteins so that both are ‘read’ to make RNA (transcription). Cas proteins bind to spacer RNA, leaving the adjacent viral RNA free to attach to any complementary viral DNA it encounters. The Cas enzyme is thus guided to DNA that it can cleave. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.

Why is CRISPR/Cas in the headlines?

We saw in Gosh! Wonderful GOSH how the Great Ormond Street Hospital team tinkered with DNA and in Self Help – Part 2 we summarized another way of doing this using viruses (notably a disabled form of the human immunodeficiency virus) to carry novel genes into cells.

A further arm of immunotherapy attempts to reverse an effect called checkpoint blockade whereby the immune system response to tumours is damped down – e.g. by using antibodies that target a protein called PD-1 (Self Help – Part 1).

Now comes news of a Chinese trial which will be the first time cells modified using CRISPR–Cas9 gene editing have been injected into people. The chap in charge is Lu You from Sichuan University’s West China Hospital in Chengdu and the plan is to take T cells from the blood patients with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer for whom chemotherapy, radiation therapy and other treatments have failed.

The target will be the PD-1 gene, the idea being that, if you want to stop PD-1 doing its stuff, far better than mucking about with antibodies is to just knock out its gene: no gene no protein! What could possibly go wrong?

Well, wonderful though CRISPR is, it doesn’t always hit the right target but in this trial the cells can be tested to make sure it’s the PD-1 gene that’s been zonked – so that shouldn’t be a problem. However, it’s a blockbuster in that all the multiplied T cells put back into the patient will be active – i.e. will have lost the PD-1 brake. Whilst that may be good for zonking tumours, goodness knows what it might do elsewhere.

The initial trial is on a small scale – just 10 people. If there are problems one possibility is to try to take the T cells from the site of the tumour, which might select those specifically targeting the tumour – not straightforward as lung cancers are difficult to get at.

Anyone for a DNA upgrade?

It’s hard to say where all this is leading. However, as Chinese scientists have already made the first CRISPR-edited human embryos and the first CRISPR-edited monkeys, the only safe bet is that China will be to the fore.


The Shocking Effect of Boiled Bugs

There’s never a dull moment in science – well, not many – and at the moment no field is fizzing more than immunotherapy. Just the other day in Outsourcing the Immune Response we talked about the astonishing finding that cells from healthy people could be used to boost the immune response – a variant on the idea of taking from patients cells that attack cancers, growing them in the lab and using genetic engineering to increase potency (generally called adoptive cell therapy).

A general prod

Just when you thought that was as smart as it could get, along comes Angus Dalgleish and chums from various centres in the UK and Spain with yet another way to give the immune system a shock. They used microorganisms (i.e. bugs) as a tweaker. The idea is that bacteria (that have been heat-killed) are injected, they interact with the host’s immune system and, by altering the proteins expressed on immune cells (macrophages, natural killer cells and T cells) can boost the immune response. That in turn can act to kill tumour cells. It’s a general ‘immunomodulatory’ effect. Dalgleish describes it as “rather like depth-charging the immune system which has been sent to sleep”. Well, giving it a prod at least.


Inactivating bugs (bacteria) and waking up the immune system.

And a promising effect

The Anglo-Spanish effort used IMM-101 (a heat-killed suspension of a bacterium called Mycobacterium obuense) injected under the skin, which has no significant side-effects. The trial was carried out in patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, a disease with dismal prognosis, and IMM-101 immunotherapy was combined with the standard chemotherapy drug (gemcitabine). IMM-101increased survival from a median of 4.4 months to 7 months with some patients living for more than a year and one for nearly three years.

Although the trial numbers are small as yet, this is a very exciting advance because it looks as though immunotherapy may be able to control one of the most serious of cancers in which its incidence nearly matches its mortality.


Dalgleish, A. et al. (2016). Randomised, open-label, phase II study of gemcitabine with and without IMM-101 for advanced pancreatic cancer. British Journal of Cancer doi: 10.1038/bjc.2016.271.


Outsourcing the Immune Response

We’re very trendy in these pages, for no other reason than that the idea is to keep up to date with exciting events in cancer biology. Accordingly, we have recently talked quite a lot about the emerging field of cancer immunotherapy – the notion that our in-built immune system will try to kill cancer cells as they emerge, because it ‘sees’ them as being to some extent ‘foreign’, but that when tumours make their presence known it has not been able to do the job completely. The idea of immunotherapy is to give our in-house system a helping hand and we’ve seen some of the approaches in Self Help – Part 2 and Gosh! Wonderful GOSH.

The immune see-saw

Our immune system walks a tight-rope: on the one hand it should attack and eliminate any ‘foreign’ cells it sees (so that we aren’t killed by infections) but, on the other, if it’s too efficient it will start destroying out own cells (which is what happens in auto-immune diseases such as Graves disease (overactive thyroid gland) and rheumatoid arthritis.

Like much of our biology, then, it’s a tug-of-war: to kill or to ignore? And, like the cell cycle that determines whether a cell should grow and divide to make two cells, it’s controlled by the balance between ‘accelerators’ and ‘brakes’. The main targets for anti-tumour immune activity are mutated proteins that appear on the surface of cancer cells – called neo-antigens (see The Shape of Things to Come?)

The aim of immunotherapy then is to boost tumour responses by disabling the ‘brakes’. And it’s had some startling successes with patients going into long-term remission. So the basic idea works but there’s a problem: generally immunotherapy doesn’t work and, so far, in only about one in ten of patients have there been significant effects.

Sub-contracting to soup-up detection

Until now it’s seemed that only a very small fraction of expressed neo-antigens (less than 1%) can turn on an immune response in cancer patients. In an exciting new take on this problem, a team of researchers from the universities of Oslo and Copenhagen have asked: “if someone’s immune cells aren’t up to recognizing and fighting their tumours (i.e. ‘seeing’ neo-antigens), could someone else’s help?” It turns out that many more than 1 in 100 neo-antigens are able to cause an immune response. Even more exciting (and surprising), immune cells (T cells) from healthy donors can react to these neo-antigens and, in vitro at least (i.e. in cells grown in the laboratory), can kill tumour cells.

118. pic

Genetic modification of blood lymphocytes

T cells are isolated from a blood sample and novel genes inserted into their DNA. The engineered T cells are expanded and then infused into the patient. In the latest development T cells from healthy donors are screened for reactivity against neo-antigens expressed in a patient’s melanoma. T cell receptors that  recognise neo-antigens are sequenced and then transferred to the patient’s T cells.

How does that work?

T cells (lymphocytes) circulating in the blood act, in effect, as scouts, scanning the surface of all cells, including cancer cells, for the presence of any protein fragments on their surface that should not be there. The first contact with such foreign protein fragments switches on a process called priming that ultimately enables T cells to kill the aberrant cells (see Invisible Army Rouses Home Guard).

What the Scandinavian group did was to screen healthy individuals for tissue compatibility with a group of cancer patients. They then identified a set of 57 neo-antigens from three melanoma patients and showed that 11 of the 57 could stimulate responses in T cells from the healthy donors (T cells from the patients only reacted to two neo-antigens). Indeed the neo-antigen-specific T cells from healthy donors could kill melanoma cells carrying the corresponding mutated protein.

What can possibly go wrong?

The obvious question is, of course, how come cells from healthy folk have a broader reactivity to neo-antigens than do the cells of melanoma patients? The answer isn’t clear but presumably either cancers can make T cell priming inefficient or T cells become tolerant to tumours (i.e. they see them as ‘self’ rather than ‘non-self’).

And the future?

The more critical question is whether the problem can be short-circuited and Erlend Strønen and friends set about this by showing that T cell receptors in donor cells that recognize neo-antigens can be sequenced and expressed in the T cells of patients. This offers the possibility of a further type of adoptive cell transfer immunotherapy to the one we described in Gosh! Wonderful GOSH.

As one of the authors, Ton Schumacher, put it “Our findings show that the immune response in cancer patients can be strengthened; there is more on the cancer cells that makes them foreign that we can exploit. One way we consider doing this is finding the right donor T cells to match these neo-antigens. The receptor that is used by these donor T-cells can then be used to genetically modify the patient’s own T cells so these will be able to detect the cancer cells.”

And Johanna Olweus commented that “Our study shows that the principle of outsourcing cancer immunity to a donor is sound. However, more work needs to be done before patients can benefit from this discovery. Thus, we need to find ways to enhance the throughput. We are currently exploring high-throughput methods to identify the neo-antigens that the T cells can “see” on the cancer and isolate the responding cells. But the results showing that we can obtain cancer-specific immunity from the blood of healthy individuals are already very promising.”


Strønen, M. Toebes, S. Kelderman, M. M. van Buuren, W. Yang, N. van Rooij, M. Donia, M.-L. Boschen, F. Lund-Johansen, J. Olweus, T. N. Schumacher. Targeting of cancer neoantigens with donor-derived T cell receptor repertoires. Science, 2016.

“Fighting cancer with the help of someone else’s immune cells.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 May 2016.

In the beginning … 

You may have noticed that the American actress Angelina Jolie, who is now employed as a  Special Envoy  for the  United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has re-surfaced in the pages of the science media. She first hit the nerdy headlines by announcing in The New York Times that she had had a preventive double mastectomy (in 2013) and a preventive oophorectomy (in 2015).

We described the molecular biology that prompted her actions in A Taxing Inheritance. The essential facts were that she had a family history of breast and ovarian cancer: genetic testing revealed that she carried a mutation in the BRCA1 gene giving her a 87% risk of breast cancer and a 50% chance of getting ovarian cancer.

A star returns

BRCA1 and breast cancer are back in the news as a result of a paper by Jane Visvader, Geoffrey Lindeman and colleagues in Melbourne that asked a very simple question: which type of cell is driven to proliferate abnormally and give rise to a tumour by mutant BRCA1 protein? That is, pre-cancerous breast tissue contains a mixture of cell types: does cancer develop from one in particular –  and, if you blocked proliferation of that type of cell, could you prevent tumours forming?

Simple question but their paper summarises about 10 years of work to come up with a clear answer.

And the villain is …

The mature mammary gland is made up of lots of small sacs (alveoli) lined with cells that produce milk – called luminal cells. Groups of alveoli are known as lobules, linked by ducts that carry milk to the nipple. Most breast cancers start in the lobular or duct cells.

Breast fig copy

Left: Normal breast lobule showing alveoli lined with milk-producing luminal cells connected to duct leading to the nipple. Right: Normal milk sac, non-invasive cancer, invasive cancer.

Things are complicated by there being more than one type of progenitor cell but the Melbourne group were able to show that, in mice carrying mutated BRCA1, one subtype stood out in terms of its cancerous potential. These cells carried a protein on their surface called RANK (which is member of the tumour necrosis factor family). They had gross defects in their DNA repair systems (so they can’t fix genetic damage) and they’re highly proliferative. Luminal progenitors that don’t express RANK behave normally.

Slide1 copy

Scheme representing normal and abnormal cell development. The basic idea is that different types of cells evolve from a common ancestor. The Australian work identified one type of luminal progenitor cell that carries a protein called RANK on its surface (pink cell) as being a prime source of tumours. RANK+ cells have defective DNA repair systems so they accumulate mutations (red cells) more rapidly than normal cells, a feature of tumour cells.

In mice with mutant BRCA1 a monoclonal antibody (denosumab) that blocks RANK signalling markedly slowed tumour development. In a small pilot study blockade of RANK inhibited cell proliferation in breast tissue from human BRCA1-mutation carriers.


How effective blocking the activation of RANK signalling will be in preventing breast cancer is anyone’s guess but the idea behind the work of the Australian group cannot be faulted. Being able to prevent the ‘starter’ cells from launching themselves on the pathway to cancer driven by mutation in BRCA1 would mean that women in Angelina Jolie’s position would not have to contemplate the drastic course of surgery. The question is: will the preliminary mouse results lead to something that works in humans and, moreover, does so with high efficiency. As ever in cancer, watch this space – but don’t hold your breath!


Nolan, E. et al. (2016). RANK ligand as a potential target for breast cancer prevention in BRCA1-mutation carriers.


Going With The Flow

The next time you happen to be in Paris and have a spare moment you might wander over to, or even up, the Eiffel Tower. The exercise will do you good, assuming you don’t have a heart attack, and you can extend your knowledge of science by scanning the names of 72 French scientists that you’ll find beneath the square thing that looks like a 1st floor balcony. Chances are you won’t recognize any of them: they really are History Boys – only two were still alive when Gustave Eiffel’s exhibit was opened for the 1889 World’s Fair.

One of the army of unknowns is a certain Michel Eugène Chevreul – and he’s a notable unknown in that he gave us the name of what is today perhaps the most familiar biological chemical – after DNA, of course. Although Chevreul came up with the name (in 1815) it was another Frenchman, François Poulletier de la Salle who, in 1769, first extracted the stuff from gallstones.

A few clues

The ‘stuff’ has turned out to be essential for all animal life. It’s present in most of the foods we eat (apart from fruit and nuts) and it’s so important that we actually make about one gram of it every day to keep up our total of some 35 grams – mostly to be found in cell membranes and particularly in the plasma membrane, the outer envelope that forms the boundary of each cell. The cell membrane protects the cell from the outside world but it also has to allow chemicals to get in and out and to permit receptor proteins to transmit signals across the barrier. For this it needs to be flexible – which why membranes are formed from two layers of lipids back-to-back. The lipid molecules have two bits: a head that likes to be in contact with water (blue blobs in picture) to which is attached two ‘tails’ ­– fatty acid chains (fatty acids are unbranched chains of carbon atoms with a methyl group (CH3–) at one end and a carboxyl group (–COOH) at the other).



A lipid bilayer                                          

De la Salle’s substance


The lipid ‘tails’ can waggle around, giving the plasma membrane its fluid nature and, to balance this, membranes contain roughly one molecule of ‘stuff’ for every lipid (the yellow strands in the lipid bilayer). As you can see from the model of the substance found by de la Salle, it has four carbon rings with a short, fatty acid-like tail (the red blob is an oxygen atom). This enables it to slot in between the lipid tails, strengthening the plasma membrane by making it a bit more rigid, so it’s harder for small molecules to get across unless there is a specific protein carrier.

Bilayer aThe plasma membrane. A fluid bilayer made of phospholipids and cholesterol permits proteins to diffuse within the membrane and allows flexibility in their 3D structures so that they can transport small molecules and respond to extracellular signals.

De la Salle’s ‘stuff’ has become famous because high levels have been associated with heart disease and much effort has gone into producing and promoting drugs that reduce its level in the blood. This despite the fact that numerous studies have shown that lowering the amount of ‘stuff’ in our blood has little effect on mortality. In fact, if you want to avoid cardiovascular problems it’s clear your best bet is to eat a Mediterranean diet (mostly plant-based foods) that will make no impact on your circulating levels of ‘stuff’.

By now you will have worked out that the name Chevreul came up with all those years ago is cholesterol and it will probably have occurred to you that it’s pretty obvious that our efforts to tinker with it are doomed to failure.

We’ve known for along time that if you eat lots of cholesterol it doesn’t make much difference to how much there is in your bloodstream – mainly because cholesterol in foods is poorly absorbed. What’s more, because it’s so important, any changes we try to make in cholesterol levels are compensated for by alterations the internal production system.

Given how important it is and the fact that we both eat and make cholesterol, it’s not surprising that quite complicated systems have evolved for carting it around the body and delivering it to the right places. These involve what you might think of as molecular container ships: called lipoproteins they are large complexes of lipids (including cholesterol) held together by proteins. The cholesterol they carry comes in two forms: cholesterol itself and cholesterol esters formed by adding a fatty acid chain to one end of the molecule – which makes them less soluble in water.

lipoprotein-structureChol est fig

Lipoprotein                                                               Cholesterol ester

Formed by an enzyme – ACAT –
adding a fatty acid to cholesterol.
Avasimibe blocks this step.


So famous has cholesterol become even its taxi service has passed into common language – almost everyone knows that high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) carry so-called ‘good cholesterol’ (back to the liver for catabolism) – low concentrations of these are associated with a higher risk of atherosclerosis. On the other hand, high concentrations of low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) go with increasing severity of cardiovascular disease – so LDLs are ‘bad cholesterol’.

What’s this got to do with cancer?

The evidence that cholesterol levels play a role in cancer is conflicting. A number of studies report an association between raised blood cholesterol level and various types of cancer, whilst others indicate no association or the converse – that low cholesterol levels are linked to cancers. However, the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) that profiles DNA mutations and protein expression reveals that the activity of some genes involved in cholesterol synthesis reflect patient survival for some cancer types: increased cholesterol synthesis correlating with decreased survival. Perhaps that accounts for evidence that the class of cholesterol lowering drugs called statins can have anti-tumour effects.

In a recent development Wei Yang and colleagues from various centres in China have come up with a trick that links cholesterol metabolism to cancer immunotherapy. They used a drug (avasimibe) that blocks the activity of the enzyme that converts cholesterol to cholesterol ester (that’s acetyl-CoA acetyltransferase – ACAT1). The effect of the drug is to raise cholesterol levels in cell membranes, in particular, in killer T cells. As we’ve noted, this will make the membranes a bit more rigid and a side-effect of that is to drive T cell receptors into clusters.

One or two other things happen but the upshot is that the killer T cells interact more effectively with target tumour cells and toxin release by the T cells – and hence tumour cell killing – is more efficient. The anti-cancer immune response has been boosted.

Remarkably, it turned out that when mice were genetically modified so that their T cells lacked ACAT1, a subset of these cells (CD8+) up-regulated their cholesterol synthesis machinery. Whilst this seems a paradoxical response, it’s very handy because it is these CD8+ cells that kill tumour cells. Avasimibe has been shown to be safe for short-term use in humans but the genetic engineering experiments in mice suggest that a similar approach, knocking out ACAT1, could be used in human immunotherapy.


Yang, W. et al. (2016). Potentiating the antitumour response of CD8+ T cells by modulating cholesterol metabolism. Nature 531, 651–655.

Dustin, M.L. (2016). Cancer immunotherapy: Killers on sterols. Nature 531, 583–584.


Invisible Army Rouses Home Guard

Writing this blog – perhaps any blog – is an odd pastime because you never really know who, if anyone, reads it or what they get out of it. Regardless of that, one person that it certainly helps is me. That is, trying to make sense of the latest cancer news is one of the best possible exercises for making you think clearly – well, as clearly as I can manage!

But over the years one other rather comforting thing has emerged: more and more often I sit down to write a story about a recent bit of science only to remember that it picks up a thread from a piece I wrote months or sometimes years ago. And that’s really cheering because it’s a kind of marker for progression – another small step forward.

Thus it was with this week’s headline news that a ‘cancer vaccine’ might be on the way. In fact this development takes up more than one strand because it’s about immunotherapy – the latest craze – that we’ve broadly explained in Self Help Part-1Gosh! Wonderful GOSH and Blowing-up Cancer and it uses artificial nanoparticles that we met in Taking a Swiss Army Knife to Cancer.

Arming the troops

What Lena Kranz and her friends from various centres in Germany described is yet another twist on the idea of giving our inbuilt defence – i.e. the immune system – a helping hand to tackle tumours. They made small sacs of lipid called nanoparticles (they’re so small you could get 300 in the width of a human hair), loaded them with bits of RNA and injected them into mice. This invisible army of fatty blobs was swept around the circulatory system whereupon two very surprising things happened. The first was that, with a little bit of fiddling (trying different proportions of lipid and RNA), the nanoparticles were taken up by two types of immune cells, with very little appearing in any other cells. This rather fortuitous result is really important because it means that the therapeutic agent (nanoparticles) don’t need to be directly targetted to a tumour cell – thus avoiding one of the perpetual problems of therapy.

The second event that was not at all a ‘gimme’ was that the immune cells (dendritic cells and macrophages) were stimulated to make interferon and they also used the RNA from the nanoparticles as if it was their own to make the encoded proteins – a set of tumour antigens (tumour antigens are proteins made by tumour cells that can be useful in identifying the cells. A large number of have now been found: one group of tumour antigens includes HER2 that we met as a drug target in Where’s That Tumour?)

The interferon was released into the tumour environment in two waves, bringing about the ‘priming’ of T lymphocytes so that, interacting via tumour antigens, they can kill target cells. By contrast with taking cells from the host and carrying out genetic engineering in the lab (Gosh! Wonderful GOSH), this approach is a sort of internal re-wiring achieved by giving a sub-set of immune system cells a bit of genetic code (in the form of RNA).

TAgs RNA Nano picNanoparticle cancer vaccine. Tiny particles (made of lipids) carry RNA into cells of the immune system (dendritic cells and macrophages) in mice. A sub-set of these cells releases a chemical signal (interferon) that promotes the activation of T lymphocytes. The imported RNA is translated into proteins (tumour antigens) – that are presented to T cells. A second wave of interferon (released from macrophages) completes T cell priming so that they are able to attack tumour cells by recognizing antigens on their surface (Kranz et al. 2016; De Vries and Figdor, 2016).

So far Kranz et al. have only tried this method in three patients with melanoma. All three made interferon and developed strong T-cell responses. As with all other immunotherapies, therefore, it is early days but the fact that widely differing strategies give a strong boost to the immune system is hugely encouraging.

Other ‘cancer vaccines’

As a footnote we might add that there are several ‘cancer vaccines’ approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These include vaccines against hepatitis B virus and human papillomavirus, along with sipuleucel-T (for the treatment of prostate cancer), and the first oncolytic virus therapy, talimogene laherparepvec (T-VEC, or Imlygic®) for the treatment of some patients with metastatic melanoma.

How was it for you?

As we began by pointing out how good writing these pieces to clarify science is for me, the question for those dear readers who’ve made it to the end is: ‘How did I do?’


Kranz, L.M. et al. (2016). Systemic RNA delivery to dendritic cells exploits antiviral defence for cancer immunotherapy. Nature (2016) doi:10.1038/nature18300.

De Vries, J. and Figdor, C. (2016). Immunotherapy: Cancer vaccine triggers antiviral-type defences.Nature (2016) doi:10.1038/nature18443.