Wonder of the World

Welcome back from our holidays on which, we trust, you had as much fun reading the four refresher pieces as I had writing them. Utter nonsense, of course. I’ve never found writing to be an orgasmic activity but, as they say about cod liver oil, it is good for you. However, whilst we were all improving ourselves on our deck-chairs and sun-loungers, the Tide of Science was waiting for no man: the waves of cancer biology have obliterated our sand castles and are fast approaching our toes. So let’s get on – albeit doing our best to make the segue from vacation to vocation as seamless as possible …..

So, on the subject of holidays, newspapers and magazines rather like the theme of ‘places to visit before you die’ – which is OK in that the world is wonderful and we should appreciate it. But there’s a problem in that one of the modern wonders is being able to see magnificent photos and movies of every far-flung nook, cranny and creature without leaving our sofa. So when we finally do get off our rear ends and chug past the Statue of Liberty on the Staten Island Ferry, zoom into Sydney or rock up to the Taj Mahal, the reaction is likely to be ‘That’s nice: looks just like on tv. Where next?’

Fortunately, being blasé has its limits. The only time I’ve made it to the Grand Canyon the mid-winter sun highlighted the colours of the rock striations so they were breathtaking in a way no photograph could quite capture. In the same vein, everyone should take the Trans-Siberian Railway we’re often told. And so you should but not because you will see houses and churches, rivers and trees that you can’t find on the Internet but because only borne by the train do you begin to sense the immensity of Mother Russia. The fact that the scenery is almost entirely birch trees minimizes distraction: all you can do is contemplate vastness – and the harshness that brings – an unvarying obbligato to Russian life.

A Provodnitsa looking after one of her passengers on The Trans-Siberian Railway

A Provodnitsa looking after one of her passengers on The Trans-Siberian Railway

The thrice-weekly freight at Grand Canyon Station, circa 1970

The thrice-weekly freight at Grand Canyon Station, circa 1970







Not Forgetting

All of which brings us to something else that is also truly a wonder of the world – cancer. If it seems a trifle weird to describe thus what’s usually classed as one of man’s greatest blights, consider this. The drive to control cancer has generated research on a scale unmatched in any other field of science. One upshot, not necessarily at the top of the list, is that we now have a breathtakingly detailed picture of the astonishing adaptability of life  – that is of our genetic material, DNA, and how its calisthenics can promote the most incredible behaviour on the part of individual cells. It’s true, you might point out, that we can see this by simply looking at the living world around us. The power of DNA to carry, in effect, limitless information produces the infinite cellular variety underpinning the staggering range of life that has evolved on earth. {Did you spot just the other day that a school field trip discovered 13 new species of spider in Queensland – yes, thirteen – inevitably headlined by The Sun as Creepy Hauly}

In the new world

But in focusing on cancers – what happens at the molecular level as they develop and how they evade our attempts to control them – the fine detail of this nigh-on incomprehensible power has been revealed as in no other way.

You’ll know what’s coming: the biggest single boost to this unveiling has been the arrival in the twenty-first century of methods for sequencing DNA and identifying which genes are expressed in cells at any given time. I know: in umpteen blogs I’ve gone on about its awe-inspiring power – but it is stunning and we’re at that stage when new developments leave one gasping almost on a monthly basis. The point here is that it’s not that the science keeps getting turned on its head. Far from it: the message remains that cells pick up changes to their DNA and, with time, these cumulative effects may drive them to make more of themselves than they should.

That’s cancer. But what is fantastic is the molecular detail that the ’omics revolution continues to lay bare. And that’s important because, as we have come to recognize that every cancer is unique, ideally we need to provide specifically tailored treatments, and we can only think of doing that when we know all the facts – even if taking them in demands a good deal of lying down in darkened rooms!

You could think of the fine molecular detail of cancers as corresponding to musical ornaments – flourishes that don’t change the overall tune but without which the piece would be unrecognizable. These include trills and turns – and all musicians will know their appoggiaturas from their acciaccaturas. They’re tiny embellishments – but just try removing them from almost any piece of music.

Lapping at your toes

So let’s look at three recent papers that have used these fabulous methods to unveil as never before the life history of cancers. The first is another masterful offering from The Sanger Institute on breast cancer: an in-depth analysis of 12 patients in which each tumor was sampled from 8 different locations. In the main the mutation patterns differed between regions of the same tumour. They extended this by looking at samples from four patients with multi-focal disease (‘foci’ being small clumps of tumour cells). As expected, individual foci turned out to be clearly genetically related to their neighbours but they also had many ‘private mutations’ – a term usually meaning a mutation found only in a single family or a small population. Here the ‘family’ are individual foci that must have arisen from a common ancestor, and you could think of them as a cellular diaspora – a localised spreading – which makes them a kind of metastasis. Quite often the mutations acquired in these focal sub-clones included major ‘driver’ genes (e.g., P53, PIK3CA and BRCA2). In general such potent mutations tend to be early events but in these foci they’ve appeared relatively late in tumour development. This doesn’t upend our basic picture: it’s just another example of ‘anything goes’ in cancer – but it does make the point that identifying therapeutic targets requires high-depth sequencing to track how individual cancers have evolved through continual acquisition of new mutations and the expansion of individual clones.

The authors used ‘coxcomb’ plots to portray these goings-on but they are quite tricky to make head or tail of. So, to avoid detail overload, I’ve converted some into genetic wallpaper, the non-repeating patterns illustrating the breathtaking variety that has evolved.

Wallpaper jpegDecorative DNA. The discs are ‘coxcomb’ plots – a variant of a pie chart. Here the colours and the wedge sizes represent mutations in different regions of four primary breast tumours. Every disc is different so that the message from this genetic wallpaper is of mutational variation not only between cancers but across the different samples taken from a single tumour. I trust that Lucy Yates, Peter Campbell and their colleagues will not be too upset at my turning their work into art (and greatly abbreviating the story): you can read the original in all its wondrous glory in Nature Medicine 21, 751–759.

The first person to come up with this very graphic way of conveying information was Florence Nightingale who, whilst working in Turkey during the Crimean War, realized that soldiers were dying in the hospitals not only from their wounds but, in much greater numbers, from preventable causes including infections, malnutrition and poor sanitation. Her meticulous recording and original presentation of hospital death tolls made her a pioneer in applied statistics and established the importance of sanitation in hospitals.

Something for the gentlemen

Two equally powerful onslaughts from Gunes Gundem, Peter Campbell and their colleagues at The Sanger Institute (again!) and Dan Robinson and pals from the University of Michigan Medical School have revealed the corresponding molecular detail of prostate cancer. Here too the picture is of each region of a tumour being unique in DNA terms. Moreover, they showed that metastasis-to-metastasis spread was common, either through the seeding of single clones or by the transfer of multiple tumour clones between metastatic sites.

Even that miserable old sod Lenin might have brightened at such fabulous science, before reverting to Eeyore mode with the inevitable “What’s to be done?” But it’s a good question. For example, as a general strategy should we try to kill the bulk of the tumour cells or aim for clones that, although small, carry very potent mutations.

Aside from the basic science, there is one quite bright ray of sunshine: about 90% of the mutations linked with the spread of prostate cancer are potentially treatable with existing drugs. And that really is encouraging, given that the disease kills 11,000 in the UK and over 30,000 in the USA every year.

prostate dogWe might also be heartened by the skills of German Shepherd dogs that can, apparently, be persuaded to apply one of their favourite pastimes – sniffing – to the detection of prostate cancer. Point them at a urine sample and 90% of the time they come up with the right answer. Given the well-known unreliability of the prostate-specific antigen blood test for prostate cancer, it’s nice to think that man’s best friend is on the job.


Yates, L.R., et al. (2015). Subclonal diversification of primary breast cancer revealed by multiregion sequencing. Nature Medicine 21, 751–759.

Robinson, D., et al. (2015). Integrative Clinical Genomics of Advanced Prostate Cancer. Cell 161, 1215–1228.

Gundem, G., et al. (2015). The evolutionary history of lethal metastatic prostate cancer. ICGC Prostate UK Group (2015). Nature 520, 353–357.


Lethal Lifesaver

Almost exactly three years ago (goodness me, it seems like a couple of months!) I wrote a piece about one of the novel approaches to cancer therapy being tried around the world. This exploits an effect called synthetic lethality that refers to the death of a cell as a result of a combination of mutations in two or more genes whilst mutation in either of these genes alone leaves the cell perfectly functional. The example involved two distinct pathways that repair damaged DNA – recall that our genetic material is being continuously assaulted in a variety of ways and that we’ve evolved very effective repair strategies. One of these involves a pair of familiar ‘cancer genes’, BRCA1 and BRCA2, mutated forms of which can be inherited to give rise to several types of cancer. The other requires an enzyme called PARP (for poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase). So the idea is that if BRCA mutations block that route the cell becomes dependent on PARP. Stop PARP functioning and the cell accumulates genetic damage that it is eventually unable to live with. Result: death of a cancer cell.

Blog fig

Synthetic lethality. If there are two distinct signaling pathways in a cell, each of which can be blocked without harming the cell but when both are inhibited simultaneously the cell dies, the effect is called synthetic lethality. The enzyme PARP (poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase 1) normally repairs single-strand DNA breaks. When this pathway is blocked by PARP inhibitors single-strand DNA breaks accumulate together with double-strand DNA breaks. If cells have normal BRCA, the double-strand breaks are repaired by a second pathway involving BRCA and the cell survives. However, in cancer cells with mutant BRCA this pathway is impaired. The use of PARP inhibitors means that neither pathway can work and the inhibitors, in effect, selectively target and kill cancer cells with BRCA mutations.

‘Three cancers for the price of one’ summarized small-scale clinical trials of several related PARP inhibitors, including one called olaparib, treating breast, ovarian and prostate cancers (BRCA mutations cause about 5% of breast cancers and 10% of ovarian cancers and they can also give rise to prostate cancer). The drugs showed effects on all three tumour types but in a subsequent trial there was no significant survival benefit for breast cancer patients.

Whilst that was a set-back I was sufficiently prescient to comment that ‘the PARP story is far from over’ and indeed further trials have shown significant effects on ovarian cancer, olaparib prolonging progression free survival from 4.3 months to 11.2 months. On this basis  Lynparza (aka Olaparib) was approved in December 2014 in both Europe and the USA for the treatment of advanced ovarian cancer with mutated BRCA.

This is only one more small step along the road to equipping us with a comprehensive anti-cancer drug cabinet but it is, of course, good news for the patient group who should benefit. For my colleague Steve Jackson and his team who developed this approach it must be a wonderful moment and they can look forward to following the success of the drug, now being marketed by Astra-Zeneca.

A Taxing Inheritance

The centenary of the beginning of the First World War prompted me, as perhaps many others, to reflect on how successive generations have done since then in terms of what they’ve bequeathed to their offspring. I didn’t need to think for too long though, to find myself muttering ‘Thank heavens for science’—because most of the rest is a pretty dismal chronicle. I know, not all technological advances in the past one hundred years have been a cause of unrestrained joy but many of them transformed life in the most wonderful ways. Would that we could point to such success in other fields.

Our best defence may be to aver: “Man cannot control the current of events. He can only float with them and steer”, a saying attributed to Otto von Bismarck. If the ‘Iron Chancellor’ actually did utter those words it seems to me he was being coy beyond belief. He is, after all, generally credited with unifying Germany, seeing off the last French monarch (Napoleon III) and establishing the peaceful domination of Europe by the German Empire that lasted until long after his death—and setting up the first welfare state along the way. “The main thing is to make history, not to write it” sounds much more like Bismarck in full and frank mode.

Nature and Nurture

One form of history that we do write but indeed we cannot control comes in the form of the genetic material that we pass to the next generation. We’re all familiar with some of this legacy because we literally see it in physical resemblances and other attributes between parents and children (“He’s got his Mum’s eyes”) or shared by siblings (“Jack and Jill are wonderful musicians”). They’re shared because large chunks of the genetic code (i.e. DNA) are identical between the individuals concerned. But if conserved DNA makes for similarities, what of the differences—the fact that our parents and brothers look different to all the seven thousand million other people on the planet? Our unique features come from variations in the genetic code—odd changes in the units (bases) of DNA scattered through our genome. Called SNPs (pronounced ‘snips’ for single nucleotide polymorphisms), they’re what make the differences between us. In other words, a SNP is a difference in a single nucleotide—A, T, C or G—within a stretch of DNA sequence that is otherwise identical between two individuals. For example, you have AAGCCTA whereas I have AAGCTTA. These genetic variations that make individuals different are the basis of DNA fingerprinting.

There’s about three million SNPs scattered throughout the human genome (so, on average, you’d come across one in every 1,000 bases if you scanned your DNA from beginning to end) and they’re what makes each of us unique. Within ethnic groups common patterns of such variants confer characteristics (dark skin/light skin, tall/short, etc) and, with that in mind, you might guess that there will also be variants that make such groups more (or less) susceptible to diseases.

Of course, there’s an endless debate about the border between our genetic inheritance and how the world we experience makes us what we are—how much of Jack and Jill’s precocious talent is because Mum and Dad made them practice twelve hours a day from age five? Fortunately we can ignore nurture here and stick to genes because we’re trying to pin down the good and the bad of our genetic legacy.

What’s all this got to do with cancer?

A good bit is that we’re distinct from everyone else but still share family features. However, our genetic baggage may also contain some unwanted freebies—the most potent of which can give a helping hand to a variety of diseases, including cancers. Cancers are caused by damage to DNA—a build-up of changes, i.e. mutations, that affect the activity of proteins critically involved in controlling cell growth. For most cancers (90%) these mutations accumulate over the lifetime of the individual—they’re called “somatic mutations”—so you can’t blame anyone but yourself and Lady Luck. But about 10% get a kind of head start when someone is born with a key mutation. That is, the mutated gene came from either egg or sperm (so it’s a germline mutation). This effect gives rise to cancers that “run in families”: a critical mutation is passed from generation to generation so that children who inherit it have a greatly increased risk of developing cancer. Two of the most common cancers that can come in hereditary form are those of the breast and bowel.


A mutational steeplechase leads to cancer. Of the tens of thousands of mutations that accumulate over time in a cancer cell, a small number of distinct “drivers” make the cancer develop (four are shown as Xs). Almost all mutations arise after birth, but about one in every ten cancers start because a person is unfortunate enough to be born with a mutation: they are already one jump ahead and are much more likely to get cancer than those born with a normal set of genes. The rate at which mutations arise is increased by exposure to carcinogens, e.g., in tobacco smoke.

Breast cancer is about twice as common in first-degree relatives of women with the disease as it is in the general population (you’re a first degree relative if you’re someone’s parent, offspring, or sibling). About 5% of all female breast cancers (men get the disease too but very rarely—about 1% of all breast cancers) arise from inherited mutations. In the 1990s two genes were identified that can carry such mutations. These are BRCA1 and BRCA2 and their abnormal versions can increase the lifetime risk of the disease to over 50%, compared with an average of about 10%. Since then heritable mutations in some other genes have also been shown to increase the risk.

Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie

A star turn

Breast cancer genetics came under the spotlight with the much-publicised saga of Angelina Jolie, the American film actress. Jolie’s mother and maternal grandmother had died of ovarian cancer and her maternal aunt from breast cancer—a family history that persuaded Jolie to opt for genetic testing that indeed revealed she was carrying a mutation in BRCA1 (BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations account for about 10% of breast cancers and 15% of ovarian cancers). For Jolie the associated lifetime risk of breast cancer was estimated as 87%, prompting her to have a preventative double mastectomy, thereby reducing her risk to less than 5%. The months after she revealed her story saw the “Angelina effect”, a doubling in the number of women being referred for genetic testing for breast cancer mutations.

What’s all this got to do with SNPs?

The story so far is of the one in ten cancers that get kicked off by a powerful, inherited mutation that changes the action of the affected protein—the BRCAs being the best-known examples. However, the BRCAs and other known mutated genes account for only about 25% of familial breast cancers, meaning that for three quarters of cases the genetic cause remains unknown. And yet we know there is an inherited (genetic) cause simply because of the generational thread. Which brings us back to those other, more subtle tweaks to DNA that we mentioned—SNPs—alterations that don’t directly affect proteins, so they’re often called variants to distinguish them from mutations.

It seems very likely that the missing culprits are indeed SNPs—lots of them. These DNA variants each make a contribution so small that on its own would have no detectable effect on the chances that the carrier will get cancer. Their impact comes from a cumulative effect. They’re like pieces of straw, individually easily bent or broken but put a dozen of them together and you have a rope. Thus combinations of individually insignificant SNPs can raise the risk of cancer by, say, 10%—not a massive increase but not negligible either. Twins who are genetically identical have similar risks of developing breast cancer, consistent with the idea that many variants, each having a very small effect, can combine to give a substantial increase in risk. Very slowly, by sequencing lots of genomes, these rare variants are being identified. Given that clusters of appropriate variants confer risk, people with the “other” variant have, in effect, a degree of protection against cancer.

And in our more distant relatives?

All this comes from the huge effort that has gone into finding genetic variants linked to one of the most common cancers but, unsurprisingly, almost all the attention has focused on European women. Not before time, someone has got round to looking for breast cancer variants in East Asians who, after all, make up over one fifth of all the people in the world. Cai Qiuyin and his colleagues at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine compared the genomes of over 20,000 cancer cases from China, Japan and South Korea with a similar number of disease-free controls. After much selecting and comparing of sequences, three particular DNA variants consistently associated with significant cancer risk. The variants were much less common in European women, suggesting that as the DNA keyboard has been strummed by evolution, distinct patterns associated with breast cancer have emerged in diverse populations.

Just two problems then. First it’s a huge task to assemble the lists of runners (and as the Asian results show, they will differ between ethnic groups). But the real challenge is yet to come. Almost all of these variants (99.9%) don’t change the sequence of proteins (i.e. how the proteins work). What they do is exert subtle effects on, for example, how much RNA or protein is made from a DNA gene at any time. At the moment we have little understanding of how this works, yet alone ideas on how to intervene to change the outcome.

Although identifying the BRCA genes that help to drive breast and ovarian cancers was a giant breakthrough, we still have no effective therapy for countering their malign influences. The intervening twenty-five years of effort have brought us to a new era of revealing the more subtle effects of variants. But the price we pay for unveiling the complete picture is perceiving just how tough is the therapeutic challenge.


Qiuyin Cai, et al. (2014). Genome-wide association analysis in East Asians identifies breast cancer susceptibility loci at 1q32.1, 5q14.3 and 15q26.1. Nature Genetics 46, 886–890. doi:10.1038/ng.3041.

Unkinking Kindle

In response to a wonderfully appreciative email about the book I’m posting the pictures (some in colour!!) because the reader couldn’t get Kindle to show them – although my publisher’s digital book manager cannot find any problem with the files.

Photographs (Plates 1 to 10) in Betrayed by Nature:

Plates 1 and 2

Plates 3 and 4

Plate 5

Plate 6

Plate 7

Plate 8

Plate 9

Plate 10

Three cancers for the price of one?

Damaging the DNA Double-helix

A colleague of mine works on double-stranded DNA repair, as it’s called in the trade. This is something that goes on in all of us as our cells patch up DNA that’s being continuously assaulted by things that cause mutations. One source of damage is radiation that can snip the double helix, leaving separate bits of chromosomes floating around in the nucleus. Anything involving ‘snipping’ suggests a pretty potent type of mutation and it does indeed present a real problem because the cell has to find ways of tagging the floating ends, bringing them together and stitching them up. Amazingly, Nature has come up with not one but several ways of doing this and, by and large, they work pretty well. In ferreting around to define the proteins involved, my friend and his team also tried out drugs that might block repair. Having found a very effective one they set up a company to develop it – duly taken over by AstraZeneca, with the result that I now know one person in science who is very rich. The hope is that the drug might work against ovarian, prostate and breast cancers – which would be very good news for AstraZeneca!

But, you may already be asking, what’s the use of a repair blocker? Surely that’s the last thing you want in staving off cancer? Well, yes – and no. All things being equal, you do want to keep repair systems working but, if one of them becomes defective as part of cancer development, knocking out another may push the cell over the brink so that it can’t deal with the DNA chaos and commits suicide.

Bear in mind that our picture of cancer is one of widespread damage to DNA. But the genetic anarchy of cancer has parallels with the political variety in that both have limits. If the Molotov cocktail fraternity so disrupt society that the binmen stop collecting rubbish, everyone dies of cholera – not exactly a great social reform. Cancer too walks a tightrope between the disruption needed to overcome normal cell control and an extreme level of chaos that would simply kill the cell.

Two of the most familiar ‘cancer genes’ are BRCA1 and BRCA2, mutated forms of which can be inherited to give rise to several types of cancer. It turns out that both BRCAs play roles in DNA repair. The drug that has improved my friend’s bank balance is olaparib and it targets another DNA repair pathway – involving an enzyme called PARP (for poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase). So that’s why it’s useful: if the BRCA route is already blocked by mutation, inhibiting a second repair pathway (PARP) may scupper the cancer cell.

BRCA mutations cause about 5% of breast cancers and 10% of ovarian cancers and they can also give rise to prostate cancer. Small-scale clinical trials of olaparib and several related PARP inhibitors have shown anti-tumour effects against all three of these cancers. However, the most recent trial showed no significant effect on survival of breast cancer patients. Whilst this is a set-back for the PARP inhibitor field, another trial has shown significant effects on ovarian cancer.

As so often in the history of cancer treatment, great expectations have taken a bit of a knock but the PARP story is far from over and it still holds the promise than one class of drugs may be effective against several different types of cancer. If it were to turn out that way it would be great news for some cancer patients – and not bad for one or two bank balances.