Flipping The Switch

If you spend even a little time thinking about cancer you’ll have realised that it’s very odd – and one oddity in particular may have struck you. A general rule is that it can arise anywhere in the body: breast, bowel and lung are commonly affected, but the more than 200 different types of cancer pop up in lots of other organs (e.g. brain, pancreas), albeit less often. But what about those places of which you hear almost nothing? For example, it’s very unusual to hear of heart or muscle cancers. Which raises the obvious question of why? Is there something going on in these tissues that counters cancer development – acts in some way to slow down tumour formation? And if there is, shouldn’t we find out about it?

Zuzana Keckesova, Robert Weinberg and their colleagues from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other centres have been scratching their heads over this for a while and they’ve recently published an answer – or, at least, one of the answers.

Getting energy from food

To see how their result fits into the jigsaw puzzle we need a quick recap on the chemical processes that go on in cells to keep them alive, aka, metabolism. Occurring in almost all organisms, glycolysis is a central metabolic pathway in which a series of chemical reactions breaks down sugars into smaller compounds, the energy released being captured as ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Needless to say, it’s complicated – there’s 10 steps and it took the best part of 100 years to work them out completely.

Prising open the black box

The story began with the French obsession with wine (which by now they’ve shared with the rest of the world, bless ’em), specifically why sometimes wine tastes horrible. So they put Louis Pasteur on the case and in 1857 he showed that it was all to do with oxygen: if air (oxygen) is present during the fermentation process the yeast cells will grow but fermentation (i.e. alcohol production) will decrease. This showed that living microorganisms were needed for fermentation and led Eduard Buchner to extract the enzymes from yeast and show that they were sufficient to convert glucose to ethanol (alcohol). In other words, you could do it all in a test tube.

The cartoon shows sugar crossing a cell membrane (a bilayer of phospholipids). The 10 steps of the glycolytic pathway (red dots) convert glucose to pyruvate that can become lactic acid or cross the membrane (another lipid bilayer) of mitochondria. In these ‘cells within cells’ oxygen is consumed to make ATP from pyruvate. Glycolysis yields 2 ATPs from each glucose. In mitochondria ‘aerobic respiration’ produces 38 ATPs per glucose – which is why they have been called the “powerhouse of the cell”. In yeast, fermentation produces alcohol from pyruvate.

This was a stunning achievement because it showed for the first time that living systems weren’t inaccessible black boxes. You could take them to bits, find out what the bits were and reassemble them into something that worked – and that’s really a definition of the science of biochemistry. The upshot was that by the 1930s through the efforts of many gifted scientists, notably Otto Meyerhof and Gustav Embden, we had a step-by-step outline of the pathway now known as glycolysis.

Enter Otto Warburg

But by this point a chap called Otto Warburg had noticed that something odd happened to metabolism in cancer. He showed that tumour cells get most of their energy from glucose using the glycolytic pathway, despite the fact that it is much less efficient than aerobic respiration (2 to 38 ATPs per glucose). And they do this even when lots of oxygen is available. Which seems like molecular madness.

Warburg was part of an amazing scientific galaxy in the period from 1901 to 1940 when one out of every three Nobel Prize winners in medicine and the natural sciences was Austrian or German. Born in Freiburg, he completed a PhD in chemistry at Berlin and then qualified in medicine at the University of Heidelberg. Fighting with the Prussian Horse Guards in the First World War, he won an Iron Cross and followed that up with the 1931 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for showing that aerobic respiration, that is, oxygen consumption, involves proteins that contain iron. However, he made so many contributions to biochemistry that he was actually nominated three times for the prize.

His discovery about tumour cells led Warburg to suggest, reasonably but wrongly, that faulty mitochondria cause cancers – whereas we now know that it’s the other way around: metabolic perturbation is just one of the consequences of tumour development.

But if upsetting mitochondria gives tumours a helping hand, how about looking for factors that help to keep them normal – i.e. using oxidative phosphorylation. And the obvious place to look is in cells that don’t multiply – i.e. appear cancer-resistant.

Which is the idea that led Keckesova & Co to a ‘eureka’ moment. Searching in muscle cells from humans and mice they discovered a protein, LACTB, lurking in their mitochondria. When they artificially made LACTB in a variety of tumour cells both in vitro and in mice it inhibited their growth. In other words, LACTB appears to be a new ‘tumour suppressor’.

What does it do?

It turns out that LACTB works in a quite subtle way. It’s only found in mitochondria, not in the main body of the cell, and it plays a part in making the membrane that forms the boundary of the “powerhouse of the cell”. Membranes are made of two layers of phospholipids arranged with their fatty tails facing inwards. They work as regulatable barriers via proteins associated with the membrane that control the passage of small molecules – so, for example, pyruvate that we mentioned earlier uses specific proteins to cross the mitochondrial membrane.

But aside from their attached proteins, the lipids themselves are a complex lot: they have a variety of fatty acid tails and different chemical groups decorate the phosphate heads. This gemisch arises in part because the lipids themselves control the proteins that they surround. In other words, if the lipid make-up of a membrane changes so too will the efficiency of embedded transport proteins. LACTB controls the level of one type phospholipid (phosphatidylethanolamine, PE): when LACTB is knocked out more PE is made. Thus this tumour suppressor affects mitochondrial lipid metabolism and hence the make-up of the membrane, and its normal role helps in blocking tumour development.

Layers of lipids with their tails pointing inwards make up cell membranes (left): proteins (red & blue blobs) control what can cross the membrane. Phospholipids themselves are a complex mixture with a variety of head groups and fatty acid tails (right).

And the method behind the madness?

So in this newly-discovered tumour suppressor we have a way in which mitochondria can be subverted to promote tumours by changing the properties of their membrane. But what’s the point? Why might it be more profitable for cancer cells to get most of their energy via a high rate of glycolysis rather than by the much more efficient route of oxidising pyruvate in mitochondria – a switch often called The Warburg effect.

There seem to be two main reasons. One is that pathways branch off from glycolysis that provide components to make new DNA – greater flow though glycolysis makes those pathways more active too – a good thing if cells are going to reproduce. The second is that making abnormal amounts of lactic acid actually helps tumour cells to survive and proliferate, it stimulates the growth of new blood vessels to feed the tumour and it can make the immune response – the  defence normally mounted by the host against tumours – less effective.

By affecting mitochondrial function, mutations that knock out LACTB can give the Warburg effect a helping hand and – if the great man’s still following the literature – he may have noted with some glee that this finding, at least, is consistent with his idea that it all starts in mitochondria!


Keckesova, Z. et al. (2017). LACTB is a tumour suppressor that modulates lipid metabolism and cell state. Nature doi:10.1038/nature21408

Cancer GPS?

The thing that pretty well everyone knows about cancers is that most are furtive little blighters. They kill one in three of us but usually we don’t they’re there until they are big enough to make something go wrong in the body or to show up in our seriously inadequate screening methods. In that sense they resemble heart problems of one sort or another, where often the first indication of trouble is unexpectedly finding yourself lying on the floor.

Meanwhile, out on the highways and byways you are about 75 times less likely to be killed in an accident than you are to succumb to either cancers or circulation failure. Which is a way of saying that in the UK about 2000 of us perish on the roads each year. That it’s ‘only’ 2000 is presumably because here your assailant is anything but furtive. All you’ve got to do is side-step the juggernaut and you’ll probably live to be – well, old enough to get cancer.

Did you know, by the way, that ‘juggernaut’ is said to come from the chariots of the Jagannath Temple in Puri on the east coast of India. These are vast contraptions used to carry representations of Hindu gods on annual festival days that look as though walking pace would be too much for them. So, replace the monsters on our roads with real juggernauts! Problem largely solved!!

Flagging cancer

But to get back to cancer or, more precisely, the difficulty of seeing it. After centuries of failing to make any inroads, recent dramatic advances give hope that all is about to change. These rely on the fact that tissues shed cells – and with them DNA – into the circulation. Tumours do this too – so in effect they are scattering clues to their existence into blood. By using short stretches of artificial DNA as bait, it’s possible to fish out tumour cell DNA from a few drops of blood. That’s a pretty neat trick in itself, given we’re talking about fewer than 100 tumour cells in a sea of several billion other cells in every cubic millimeter of blood.

There are two big attractions in this ‘microfluidics’ approach. First it’s almost ‘non-invasive’ in needing only a small blood sample and, second, it is possible that indicators may be picked up long before a tumour would otherwise show up. In effect it’s taking a biochemical magnifying glass to our body to ask if there’s anything there that wouldn’t normally be present. Detect a marker and you know there’s a tumour somewhere in the body, and if the marker changes in concentration in response to a treatment, you have a monitor for how well that treatment is doing. So far, so good.

And the problem?

These ‘liquid biopsy’ methods that use just a teaspoonful of blood have been under development for several years but there has been one big cloud hanging over them. They appear to be exquisitely sensitive in detecting the presence of a cancer – by sequencing the DNA picked up – but they have not been able to pinpoint the tissue of origin. Until now.

Step forward epigenetics

Shuli Kang and colleagues at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California have broken this impasse by turning to epigenetics. We noted in Twenty More Winks that an epigenetic modification is any change in DNA, other than in the sequence of bases (i.e. mutation), that affects how an organism develops or functions. They’re brought about by tacking small chemical groups (commonly methyl (CH3) groups) either on to some of the bases in DNA itself or on to the proteins (histones) that act like cotton reels around which DNA wraps itself. The upshot is small changes in the structure of DNA that affect gene expression. You can think of DNA methylation as a series of flags dotted along the DNA strand, decorating it in a seemingly random pattern. It isn’t random, of course, and the target for methylation is a cytosine nucleotide (C) followed by a guanine (G) in the linear DNA sequence – called a CpG site because G and C are separated by one phosphate (p). Phosphate links nucleosides together in the backbone of DNA.

Cancer cells often display abnormal DNA methylation patterns – excess methylation (hypermethylation) in some regions, reduced methylation in others – that contributes to their peculiar behavior. It’s possible to determine the methylation profile of a DNA sample (by a method called bisulfite sequencing).

Kang & Co. developed a computer program to analyse methylation profiles from solid tumours and healthy samples in public databases and compare them to patient DNA of unknown tissue origin.

The peaks represent CpG clusters that characterize normal cells (top) and a variety of cancers. The key point is that the different patterns identify the tissue of origin (from Kang, S. et al., 2017).

The program’s called CancerLocator and in this initial study it was used to test samples from patients with lung, liver or breast cancer. In the modest words of the authors, CancerLocator ‘vastly outperforms’ previous methods – mind you, they struggle to even to distinguish most cancer samples from non-cancer samples. Nevertheless, CancerLocator’s a big step forward, not least because it can detect early stage cancers with 80% accuracy.

It’s also reasonable to expect major improvements as methylation sequencing becomes more extensive and higher resolution reveals more subtle signatures. What’s more, in principle, it should be able to detect all types of cancers – meaning that, after all so many centuries we may at last have a way of side-stepping the juggernaut.


Kang, S. et al. (2017). CancerLocator: non-invasive cancer diagnosis and tissue-of-origin prediction using methylation profiles of cell-free DNA. Genome Biology DOI 10.1186/s13059-017-1191-5.

Through the Smokescreen

For many years I was lucky enough to teach in a cancer biology course for third year natural science and medical students. Quite a few of those guys would already be eyeing up research careers and, within just a few months, some might be working on the very topics that came up in lectures. Nothing went down better, therefore, than talking about a nifty new method that had given easy-to-grasp results clearly of direct relevance to cancer.

Three cheers then for Mikhail Denissenko and friends who in 1996 published the first absolutely unequivocal evidence that a chemical in cigarette smoke could directly damage a bit of DNA that provides a major protection against cancer. The compound bound directly to several guanines in the DNA sequence that encodes P53 – the protein often called ‘the guardian of the genome’ – causing mutations. A pity poor old Fritz Lickint wasn’t around for a celebratory drink – it was he, back in the 1930s, that first spotted the link between smoking and lung cancer.

This was absolutely brilliant for showing how proteins switched on genes – and how that switch could be perturbed by mutations – because, just a couple of years earlier, Yunje Cho’s group at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York had made crystals of P53 stuck to DNA and used X-rays to reveal the structure. This showed that six sites (amino acids) in the centre of the P53 protein poked like fingers into the groove of double-stranded DNA.

x-ray-picCentral core of P53 (grey ribbon) binding to the groove in double-stranded DNA (blue). The six amino acids (residues) most commonly mutated in p53 are shown in yellow (from Cho et al., 1994).

So that was how P53 ‘talked’ to DNA to control the expression of specific genes. What could be better then, in a talk on how DNA damage can lead to cancer, than the story of a specific chemical doing nasty things to a gene that encodes perhaps the most revered of anti-cancer proteins?

The only thing baffling the students must have been the tobacco companies insisting, as they continued to do for years, that smoking was good for you.

And twenty-something years on …?

Well, it’s taken a couple of revolutions (scientific, of course!) but in that time we’ve advanced to being able to sequence genomes at a fantastic speed for next to nothing in terms of cost. In that period too more and more data have accumulated showing the pervasive influence of the weed. In particular that not only does it cause cancer in tissues directly exposed to cigarette smoke (lung, oesophagus, larynx, mouth and throat) but it also promotes cancers in places that never see inhaled smoke: kidney, bladder, liver, pancreas, stomach, cervix, colon, rectum and white blood cells (acute myeloid leukemia). However, up until now we’ve had very little idea of what, if anything, these effects have in common in terms of molecular damage.

Applying the power of modern sequencing, Ludmil Alexandrov of the Los Alamos National Lab, along with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute’s Michael Stratton and their colleagues have pieced together whole-genome sequences and exome sequences (those are just the DNA that encode proteins – about 1% of the total) of over 5,000 tumours. These covered 17 smoking-associated forms of cancer and permitted comparison of tobacco smokers with never-smokers.

Let’s hear it for consistent science!

The most obvious question then is do the latest results confirm the efforts of Denissenko & Co., now some 20 years old? The latest work found that smoking could increase the mutation load in the form of multiple, distinct ‘mutational signatures’, each contributing to different extents in different cancers. And indeed in lung and larynx tumours they found the guanine-to-thymine base-pair change that Denissenko et al had observed as the result of a specific chemical attaching to DNA.

For lung cancer they concluded that, all told, about 150 mutations accumulate in a given lung cell as a result of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for a year.

Turning to tissues that are not directly exposed to smoke, things are a bit less clear. In liver and kidney cancers smokers have a bigger load of mutations than non-smokers (as in the lung). However, and somewhat surprisingly, in other smoking-associated cancer types there were no clear differences. And even odder, there was no difference in the methylation of DNA between smokers and non-smokers – that’s the chemical tags that can be added to DNA to tune the process of transforming the genetic code into proteins. Which was strange because we know that such ‘epigenetic’ changes can occur in response to external factors, e.g., diet.

What’s going on?

Not clear beyond the clear fact that tissues directly exposed to smoke accumulate cancer-driving mutations – and the longer the exposure the bigger the burden. For tissues that don’t see smoke its effect must be indirect. A possible way for this to happen would be for smoke to cause mild inflammation that in turn causes chemical signals to be released into the circulation that in turn affect how efficiently cells repair damage to their DNA.


Sir Walt showing off on his return                         to England

Whose fault it is anyway?

So tobacco-promoted cancers still retain some of their molecular mystery as well as presenting an appalling and globally growing problem. These days a popular pastime is to find someone else to blame for anything and everything – and in the case of smoking we all know who the front-runner is. But although Sir Walter Raleigh brought tobacco to Europe (in 1578), it had clearly been in use by American natives long before he turned up and, going in the opposite direction (à la Marco Polo), the Chinese had been at it since at least the early 1500s. To its credit, China had an anti-smoking movement by 1639, during the Ming Dynasty. One of their Emperors decreed that tobacco addicts be executed and the Qing Emperor Kangxi went a step further by beheading anyone who even possessed tobacco.

And paying the price

And paying the price

If you’re thinking maybe we should get a touch more Draconian in our anti-smoking measures, it’s worth pointing out that the Chinese model hasn’t worked out too well so far. China’s currently heading for three million cancer deaths annually. About 400,000 of these are from lung cancer and the smoking trends mean this figure will be 700,000 annual deaths by 2020. The global cancer map is a great way to keep up with the stats of both lung cancer and the rest – though it’s not for those of a nervous disposition!


Denissenko, M.F. et al. ( (1996). Preferential Formation of Benzo[a]pyrene Adducts at Lung Cancer Mutational Hotspots in P53.Science 274, 430–432.

Cho, Y. et al. (1994). Crystal Structure of a p53 Tumor Suppressor-DNA Complex: Understanding Tumorigenic Mutations. Science, 265, 346-355.

Alexandrov, L.D. et al. (2016). Mutational signatures associated with tobacco smoking in human cancer. Science 354, 618-622.

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.

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.


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.


New Era … Or Déjà vu?


Readers who follow events in the US of A – beyond the bizarre unfolding of the selection of the Republican Party’s nominee for President of the United States – may have noticed that the presidential incumbent put forward another of his bright ideas in the 2016 State of the Union Address. The plan launched by President Obama is to eliminate cancer and to this end $1 billion is to go into a national initiative with a strong focus on earlier detection, immunotherapy and drug combinations. It’s called a Moonshot’, presumably as a nod to President Kennedy’s 1961 statement that America should land a man on the moon (and bring him back!).011316_SOTU_THUMB_LARGE

A key aim of Moonshot is to improve all-round collaboration and to ‘bring about a decade’s worth of advances in five years.’ Part of this involvesbreaking down silos’ – which apparently is business-speak (and therefore a new one on me) for dealing with the problem of folk not wanting to share things with others in the same line of work. So someone’s spotted that science and medicine are not immune to this frailty.silo_mentality

On the home front …

In fact the President could be said to be slightly off the pace as, in October 2015, Cancer Research UK launched ‘Grand Challenges’ – a more modest (£100M) drive to tackle the most important questions in cancer. They’ve pinpointed seven problems and, helpfully, six of these will not be new to dedicated readers of these pages. They are:

  1. To develop vaccines (i.e. immunotherapy) to prevent non-viral cancers;
  2. To eradicate the 200,000 cancers caused each year by the Epstein Barr Virus;
  3. To understand the mutation patterns caused by different cancer-causing events;
  4. To improve early detection;
  5. To map the complexity of tumours at the molecular and cellular level;
  6. To find a way of targetting the cancer super-controller MYC;
  7. To work out how to target anti-cancer drugs to specific cells in the body.

{No/. 2 is the odd one out so it clearly hasn’t been too high a priority for me but we did talk about Epstein Barr Virus in Betrayed by Nature – phew!}.

But wait a minute

Readers of a certain age may be thinking this all sounds a bit familiar and, of course, they’re right. It was in 1971 that President Richard Nixon launched the ‘war on cancer’, the aim of which was to, er, to eliminate cancers. Given that 45 years on in the USA there’ll be more than 1.6 million new cases of cancer and 600,000 cancer deaths this year, it’s tempting to conclude that all we’ve learned is that things are a lot more complicated than we ever imagined.

Well, you can say that again. Of the several hundred genes that we now know can play a role in cancers, two are massively important MYC (‘mick’) and P53. Screen the scientific literature for research publications with one of those names in the title and you get, wait for it, over 50,000 for ‘MYC’ and for P53 over 168,000. It’s impossible to grasp how many hours of global sweat and toil went into churning out that amount of work – and that’s studies of just two bits of the jigsaw!

So 45 years of digging have yielded astonishing detail of the cellular and molecular biology – and that basis will prove essential to any rational approach to therapy. It’s a slow business this learning to walk before you run! But we can be rather more up-beat. Alongside all the science there have come considerable improvements in treatments. Thirty years ago one in four of those diagnosed with a cancer survived for more than 10 years. Now it’s almost one in two. But it’s a hugely variable picture: for breast cancer the 10 year overall survival rate is nearly 80% and for testicular cancer it’s over 98%. However, for lung cancer and cancer rates remain below 5% 1%, respectively. For these and other cancers there has been very little progress.

So 45 years of digging away have yielded astonishing detail of the cellular and molecular biology – and that basis will prove essential to any rational approach to therapy. It’s a slow business this learning to walk before you run! But we can be rather more up-beat. Alongside all the science there have come considerable improvements in treatments. Thirty years ago one in four of those diagnosed with a cancer survived for more than 10 years. Now it’s almost one in two. But it’s a hugely variable picture: for breast cancer the 10 year overall survival rate is nearly 80% and for testicular cancer it’s over 98%. However, for lung cancer and pancreatic cancer rates remain below 5% and 1%, respectively. For these and other cancers there has been very little progress.

All systems go?

Well, maybe. Moonshot is aimed at better and earlier diagnosis, more precise surgery and radiotherapy, and more drugs that can be better targeted. Oh, and bearing in mind that one in three cancers could be prevented, keeping plugging away at lifestyle factors.

How will it fare? Well, now we’re in the genomic era we can be sure that the facts mountain resulting from 45 years of collective toil will be as a molehill to the Everest of data now being mined and analysed. From that will emerge, we can assume with some confidence, a gradual refinement of the factors that are critical in determining the most effective treatment for an individual cancer.

Just recently we described in The Shape of Things to Come the astonishingly detailed picture that can be drawn of an individual tumour when it’s subjected to the full technological barrage now available. As we learn more about the critical factors, immunotherapy regimens will become more precise and the current response rate of about 10% of patients will rise.

Progress will still be slow, as we noted in The Shape of Things to Come – don’t expect miracles but, with lots of money, things will get better.