Where’s that Tumour?

It’s handy that in the last piece we summarised the Grand Plan of President Obama’s Moonshot and the UK’s complementary Grand Challenges for cancer because it’s a good backdrop to some results presented a month ago at the European Breast Cancer Conference in Amsterdam. As ever, the newspapers reported them under ‘staggering’ headlines – but this time you couldn’t really blame them as one of the boffins involved, Nigel Bundred of Manchester University, described the results as mind-boggling.’

Prepare to be boggled

What was reported was a small-scale trial (257 women) of a treatment for one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer – HER2 positive. This subtype of breast cancer takes its name from a protein that spans the cell membrane and can pass a signal from outside to in. That makes HER2 a ‘receptor’ – you can think of receptors as two blobs of protein joined by a wiggly bit that sits across the cell membrane. When something sticks to the outer bit the receptor changes shape to accommodate it. It’s rather like shaking hands with someone: the shape of your hand changes as you grip theirs. The clever bit is that a relatively small change in the blob on the outside of the cell is transmitted to the blob on the inside via the trans-membrane bridge (or wiggly bit).

HER2 is unusual: rather than having its own messenger floating around in the circulation, it gets switched on by sticking to another cell surface receptor – such receptors are rather touchingly called ‘orphans’. HER2 is a bit of an incestuous orphan, being particularly fond of HER3, a close relative – and when these two are drawn into an embrace on the outside of the cell their internal blobs have to follow suit – it’s difficult to kiss while keeping your bottom halves far apart. This drawing together of the internal blobs in turn causes them to change shape – not a lot but just enough to act as a signal. For HER2 that signal is an enzyme activity: it gets turned on as a kinase – so it adds phosphate groups, specifically to tyrosine amino acids, in target proteins. It’s a receptor tyrosine kinase. Switching it on activates downstream pathways that signal to the nucleus, telling the cell to go forth and multiply.

Because there are lots of signal pathways in cells that send messages in straight lines but can also ‘cross-talk’, it’s a bit like a blancmange: poke it in one place with a chemical (messenger or drug) and the whole thing wobbles.

Fig. 1. 114

The cell as a blancmange. Receptor proteins span the outer membrane and most pass a signal from outside to in as a response to the arrival of a chemical messenger. HER2 is unusual because it works by linking with other receptors (e.g. HER3): the intracellular pathways thus activated include RAS-MAPK.

Healthy breast cells have about 20,000 HER2 proteins but tumour cells may have 100 times more – i.e. 2 million receptors. So it’s easy to see that if you jack up the number of signallers by 100-fold you’re likely to have a pretty hefty proliferation push. The cells just keep on making more and more of themselves in an uncontrolled way – that’s cancer.

One of the main downstream signalling pathways from HER2 is RAS-MAPK that we’ve met before as a seductive target for blocking by anti-cancer drugs.

But, because multiple pathways can be switched on, hitting a single target often doesn’t work too well.

What’s new?

The usual treatment for breast cancer is primary tumour removal by surgery followed by a combination of radiotherapy and drugs. One of the most successful drugs for treating cancers with high levels of HER2 has been trastuzumab (brandname Herceptin). Herceptin is an antibody that sticks to HER2, prevents the receptor interacting with other proteins (including HER3) and thus blocks uncontrolled signalling.

The study that’s just been reported had two novel twists. The first was to try Herceptin before surgery. The second was to combine Herceptin with another drug – one that hits the enzyme activity that turns on the signal pathways inside cells.

A big turn-off: kinase inhibitors

Lapatinib (Tykerb/Tyverb) is a small molecule that inhibits the tyrosine kinase activity of HER2. It’s been used hitherto where a cancer has progressed after treatment with other drugs. About a dozen kinase inhibitors currently have Food and Drug Administration approval with many more in clinical trials. Perhaps the best known is imatinib (Gleevec), used for the treatment of chronic myelogenous leukemia.

Combining Tykerb with Herceptin hits the signal pathway two different spots. The idea is to give the tumour cell two problems to overcome in the hope that it will fail. It’s a strategy that has met with some success in other settings – meaning that some patients have had extended survival times.

In this study 66 women were given the combination therapy and the results clearly came as a serious shock to one and all. In almost nine out of ten cases there was an immediate response but in 11% tumours entirely vanished over a two-week treatment period. That is truly astonishing. Even in the most successful mouse experiments it is a very rare event for tumours to disappear. In a further 17% of the women tumours shrunk to less than 5mm – a growth so small it is classed as “minimal residual disease”.

Fig. 2. 114

Poking the blancmange. Two shots at blocking signalling in a cancer cell with high levels of the HER2 receptor. Herceptin prevents HER2 interacting with other proteins, especially HER3, whilst Tykerb blocks any residual tyrosine kinase activity.

 A big question, of course, is why complete responses only occurred in one in ten cases – and it underlines the need to know more about what makes a tumour, as we noted last time. That aside, one very encouraging aspect is the short treatment period required for a response. Tyverb was turned down by NHS rationing bodies for not being cost-effective at £27,000 a year – much the same as Herceptin. However, the combined therapy would be about £1,500 per patient. Assuming that the complete responders really are in long-term remission, that would represent a financial transformation almost as astonishing as the biological result.

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.