Holiday Reading (3) – Stopping the Juggernaut

The mutations that drive cancers fall into two major groups: those that reduce or eliminate the activity of affected proteins and those that have the opposite effect and render the protein abnormally active. It’s intuitively easy to see how the latter work: if a protein (or more than one) in a pathway that tells cells to proliferate becomes more efficient the process is accelerated. Less obvious is how losing an activity might have a similar effect but this comes about because the process by which one cell becomes two (called the cell cycle) is controlled by both positive and negative factors (accelerators and brakes if you will). This concept of a balancing act – signals pulling in opposite directions – is a common theme in biology. In the complex and ever changing environment of a cell the pressure to reproduce is balanced by cues that ask crucial questions. Are there sufficient nutrients available to support growth? Is the DNA undamaged, i.e. in a fit state to be replicated? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’ the cell cycle machinery applies the brakes, so that operations are suspended until circumstances change. The loss of negative regulators releases a critical restraint so that cells have a green light to divide even when they should not – a recipe for cancer.

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The cell cycle.

Cells are stimulated by growth factors to leave a quiescent state (G0) and enter the cell cycle – two growth phases (G1 & G2), S phase where DNA is duplicated and mitosis (M) in which the cells divide to give to identical daughter cells. Checkpoints can arrest progression if, for example, DNA is damaged. 

We’re all familiar with this kind of message tug-of-war at the level of the whole animal. We’ve eaten a cream cake and the schoolboy within is saying ‘go on, have another’ whilst the voice of wisdom is whispering ‘if you go on for long enough you’ll end up spherical.’

Because loss of key negative regulators occurs in almost all cancers it is a high priority to find ways of replacing inactivated or lost genes. Thus far, however, successful ‘gene therapy’ approaches have not been forthcoming with perhaps the exception of the emerging field of immunotherapy. The aim here is to boost the activity of the immune system of an individual – in other words to give an innate anti-cancer defense a helping hand. The immune system can affect solid cancers through what’s become known as the tumour microenvironment – the variety of cells and messengers that flock to the site of the abnormal growth. We’ve referred to these as ‘groupies’ and they include white blood cells. They’re drawn to the scene of the crime by chemical signals released by the tumour – the initial aim being to liquidate the intruder (i.e. tumour cells). However, if this fails, a two-way communication sees would-be killers converted to avid supporters that are essential for cancer development and spread.

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The tumour microenvironment. Tumour cells release chemical messengers that attract other types of cell, in particular those that mediate the immune response. If the cancer cells are not eliminated a two-way signaling system is established that helps tumour development.

There is much optimism that this will evolve into a really effective therapy but it is too early for unreserved confidence.

The obstacle of reversing mutations that eliminate the function of a gene has led to the current position in which practically all anti-cancer agents in use are inhibitors, that is, they block the activity of a protein (or proteins) resulting in the arrest of cell proliferation – which may ultimately lead to cell death. Almost all these drugs are not specific for tumour cells: they hit some component of the cell replication machinery and will block division in any cell they reach – which is why so many give rise to the side-effects notoriously associated with cancer chemotherapy. For example, the taxanes – widely used in this context – stick to protein cables to prevent them from pulling duplicated DNA strands apart so that cells, in effect, become frozen in final stages of division. Other classes of agent target different aspects of the cell cycle.

It is somewhat surprising that non-tumour specific agents work as well as they do but their obvious shortcomings have provided a major incentive for the development of ‘specific’ drugs – meaning ones that hit only tumour cells and leave normal tissue alone. Several of these have come into use over the past 15 years and more are in various stages of clinical trials. They’re specific because they knock out the activity of mutant proteins that are made only in tumour cells. Notable examples are Zelboraf® manufactured by Roche (hits the mutated form of a cell messenger – called BRAF – that drives a high proportion of malignant melanomas) and Gleevec® (Novartis AG: blocks a hybrid protein – BCR-ABL – that is usually formed in a type of leukemia).

These ‘targeted therapies’ are designed to not so much to poke the blancmange as to zap it by knocking out the activity of critical mutant proteins that are the product of cancer evolution. And they have produced spectacular remissions. However, in common with all other anti-cancer drugs, they suffer from the shortcoming that, almost inevitably, tumours develop resistance to their effects and the disease re-surfaces. The most remarkable and distressing aspect of drug resistance is that it commonly occurs on a timescale of months.

And being outwitted

Tumour cells use two tactics to neutralize anything thrown at them before it can neutralize them. One is to treat the agent as garbage and activate proteins in the cell membrane that pump it out. That’s pretty smart but what’s really staggering is the flexibility cells show in adapting their signal pathways to counter the effect of a drug blocking a specific target. Just about any feat of molecular gymnastics that you can imagine has been shown to occur, ranging from switching to other pathways in the signalling network to short-circuit the block, to evolving secondary mutations in the target mutant protein so that the drug can no longer stick to it. Launching specific drugs at cells may give them a mighty poke in a particularly tender spot, and indeed many cells may die as a result, but almost inevitably some survive. The blancmange shakes itself, comes up with a counter and gets down to business again. This quite extraordinary resilience of tumour cells derives from the infinite adaptability of the genome and we might do well to reflect that in trying to come up with anti-cancer drugs we are taking on an adversary that has overcome the challenges involved in generating the umpteen million species to have emerged during the earth’s lifetime.

Not the least disheartening aspect of this scenario is that when tumours recur after an initial drug treatment they are often more efficient at propagating themselves, i.e. more aggressive, than their precursors.

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Mission Impossible?

We make great play in these pages of the wonders of the genetic revolution. So we should. The technology is simply breathtaking, and the amount of data we can gather is so incomprehensibly vast the latest generation of computers is straining at the seams to record it all and, of course, it unveils the vision of a new world. No field has felt the impact more than cancer biology which now holds the promise that, shortly after being found, tumors will be sequenced: on the basis of identified ‘driver’ mutations appropriate drug cocktails will be devised to prevent remission after the initial treatment and these can even be tested in mouse ‘avatars’ to confirm their effectiveness against the patient’s own tumor cells. Finally, even if recurrence sets in at a later date, the same procedure can be repeated and a new drug combo used to target any evolution undergone by the cancer. The era of ‘personalized medicine’ has arrived.

Every Silver Lining …

But there are a few murky clouds drifting across this sky blue portrait of triumph.

  1. The first is that, as we’ve seen in Family Tree of Breast Cancer and Molecular Mosaics, cancers are an incredible mixture – that is, the mutation signature varies depending on the region sampled in primary tumors and is different for individual metastases. This means that a ‘signature’ at best represents a dominant hand of mutations and, worse still, it’s continuously evolving.
  2. The second problem is that, although there are several hundred ‘anti-cancer’ drugs that have been approved for use by the FDA against specific types or stages of cancer, fewer than half a dozen are ‘specific’ – meaning that they hit only tumor cells and leave normal tissue alone. The ‘few’ work because they knock out the activity of mutant proteins that are made only in tumor cells. Notable examples are vemurafinib/Zelboraf (hits the mutated form of BRAF that drives a high proportion of malignant melanomas) and imatinib/Gleevec (blocks the BCR-ABL protein that is formed in most chronic myelogenous leukemias) – and these ‘targetted therapies’ have produced spectacular remissions. Other agents that have attracted much media attention include Herceptin (trastuzumab), a monoclonal antibody that sticks to a protein present in large amounts on the surface of some types of breast cancer cell. This type of agent is highly specific for the protein it targets (i.e. it doesn’t interact with anything else) but it isn’t specific for cancer cells per se. They work because cells heavily loaded with the target get a relatively big hit – a kind of tall poppy syndrome.
  3. Virtually all other chemo agents work on the same principle: in essence they affect every cell they manage to reach and any anti-cancer effect is due to tumor cells being a bit more susceptible. Which is why, of course, the efficacy of any drug combo is to a considerable extent a matter of luck and side effects are such a common problem.
  4. Unquestionably more anti-cancer drugs will be developed, those that do come on line will be more specific and therefore less unpleasant to use, so it may well be that in 20 years time we will have a drug cabinet that is sufficiently well stocked to tackle the major cancers at key stages in their evolution. Which is all well and good but, regardless of how they work and what is meant by ‘specificity’, the biggest problem of all will remain. Resistance – the capacity of tumor cells to neutralize anything that is used with the idea of neutralizing them. They do this by two main routes (1) pumping out the drug and (2) adapting to reduce drug efficacy. The obvious counter is simply to throw more of the drug at them but, in the end, side-effects impose a limit. What this means is that even when drugs have initially startling effects, as do vemurafinib and imatinib, patients eventually become refractive and tumors recur.

MAPK

Cell signalling: cells receive many signals from messengers that attach to receptor proteins spanning the outer membrane. Activated receptors turn on relays of proteins (RAS, A, B, C, D) that talk to the nucleus, switching on genes that drive proliferation. RAS proteins are a focus for many incoming signals and they also set off several relay chains that converge on the nucleus. They work at the cell membrane to which they are escorted from where they’re made by a protein called PDEdelta. A new drug, deltarasin, blocks the escort’s action so that RAS cannot find its way to work and cell growth is arrested.

A Different Line of Attack

In view of that rather gloomy assessment should we try an alternative approach? The personalized scenario involves drug combos tailored to the individual cancer at a given stage of development. But if that seems unlikely to provide a solution remotely near to the ideal, is there another way of selecting targets? Time to try ‘impersonalized medicine’ perhaps?

This notion comes from the thought that what we’re trying to do is block signals that release the brakes on cell proliferation. Many distinct signal pathways impact on the machinery that drives this process, themselves driven by different types of external signal, but it would seem obvious that somewhere along the line these must converge on one or two key regulators – master controllers if you like of cell multiplication. Indeed they do and one of these foci is a protein called RAS (there are three close relatives in the RAS family). RAS is a major junction in cell signalling: many messages from the outside world eventually converge on RAS and lots of pathways radiate from it. When a cell launches itself into the division cycle it does so as an integrated response to these signals.

RAS is mutated to a hyperactive form in about 20% of human cancers (turning on cell growth) so obviously it would be good to have a drug that can hit RAS and an enormous amount of effort has gone into coming up with one. Unfortunately a variety of clever strategies aimed directly at RAS proteins simply haven’t worked. Enter Gunther Zimmermann and his team.

Inhibiting RAS Signalling

RAS proteins do their signaling attached to the inside of the outer membrane of the cell – but they’re made in the interior and to get to their place of work they are escorted to the membrane by a protein called PDEδ (a phosphodiesterase). To upset this cosy arrangement, the Dortmund group developed small molecule, deltarasin, that sticks tightly to the escort which, in response, changes shape just enough to prevent it being able to hold hands  with RAS. The result is that the key signaller (KRAS in fact) is no longer distributed to the membrane. This prevents it working and impairs the growth of KRAS-mutant pancreatic tumour cells.

The great attraction of this approach is that it’s indirect – so the hope is that cells won’t realize that RAS is wandering aimlessly around doing nothing and therefore not simply overwhelm the drug by making more mutant RAS. It remains to be seen how many off-target effects this drug has but for the moment an exciting new idea holds the promise of hitting cancers where it hurts them most – in a key node essential for unregulated cell growth.

References

Baker, N.M. and Der, C.J. (2013). Cancer: Drug for an ‘undruggable’ protein. Nature 497, 577–578.

Zimmermann, G., Papke, B., Ismail, S., Vartak, N., Chandra, A., Hoffmann, M., Hahn, S.A., Triola, G., Wittinghofer, A., Bastiaens, P.I.H. and Waldmann, H. (2013). Small molecule inhibition of the KRAS–PDEδ interaction impairs oncogenic KRAS signaling. Nature 497, 638–642.