No It Isn’t!

 

It’s great that newspapers carry the number of science items they do but, as regular readers will know, there’s nothing like the typical cancer headline to get me squawking ‘No it isn’t!” Step forward The Independent with the latest: “Major breakthrough in cancer care … groundbreaking international collaboration …”

Let’s be clear: the subject usually is interesting. In this case it certainly is and it deserves better headlines.

So what has happened?

A big flurry of research papers has just emerged from a joint project of the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute to make something called The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA). This massive initiative is, of course, an offspring of the Human Genome Project, the first full sequencing of the 3,000 million base-pairs of human DNA, completed in 2003. The intervening 15 years have seen a technical revolution, perhaps unparalled in the history of science, such that now genomes can be sequenced in an hour or two for a few hundred dollars. TCGA began in 2006 with the aim of providing a genetic data-base for three cancer types: lung, ovarian, and glioblastoma. Such was its success that it soon expanded to a vast, comprehensive dataset of more than 11,000 cases across 33 tumor types, describing the variety of molecular changes that drive the cancers. The upshot is now being called the Pan-Cancer Atlas — PanCan Atlas, for short.

What do we need to know?

Fortunately not much of the humungous amounts of detail but the scheme below gives an inkling of the scale of this wonderful endeavour — it’s from a short, very readable summary by Carolyn Hutter and Jean Claude Zenklusen.

TCGA by numbers. The scale of the effort and output from The Cancer Genome Atlas. From Hutter and Zenklusen, 2018.

The first point is obvious: sequencing 11,000 paired tumour and normal tissue samples produced mind-boggling masses of data. 2.5 petabytes, in fact. If you have to think twice about your gigas and teras, 1 PB = 1,000,000,000,000,000 B, i.e. 1015 B or 1000 terabytes. A PB is sometimes called, apparently, a quadrillion — and, as the scheme helpfully notes, you’d need over 200,000 DVDs to store it.

The 33 different tumour types included all the common cancers (breast, bowel, lung, prostate, etc.) and 10 rare types.

The figure of seven data types refers to the variety of information accumulated in these studies (e.g., mutations that affect genes, epigenetic changes (DNA methylation), RNA and protein expression, duplication or deletion of stretches of DNA (copy number variation), etc.

After which it’s worth pausing for a moment to contemplate the effort and organization involved in collecting 11,000 paired samples, sequencing them and analyzing the output. It’s true that sequencing itself is now fairly routine, but that’s still an awful lot of experiments. But think for even longer about what’s gone into making some kind of sense of the monstrous amount of data generated.

And it’s important because?

The findings confirm a trend that has begun to emerge over the last few years, namely that the classification of cancers is being redefined. Traditionally they have been grouped on the basis of the tissue of origin (breast, bowel, etc.) but this will gradually be replaced by genetic grouping, reflecting the fact that seemingly unrelated cancers can be driven by common pathways.

The most encouraging thing to come out of the genetic changes driving these tumours is that for about half of them potential treatments are already available. That’s quite a surprise but it doesn’t mean that hitting those targets will actually work as anti-cancer strategies. Nevertheless, it’s a cheering point that the output of this phenomenal project may, as one of the papers noted, serve as a launching pad for real benefit in the not too distant future.

What should science journalists do to stop upsetting me?

Read the papers they comment on rather than simply relying on press releases, never use the words ‘breakthrough’ or ‘groundbreaking’ and grasp the point that science proceeds in very small steps, not always forward, governed by available methods. This work is quite staggering for it is on a scale that is close to unimaginable and, in the end, it will lead to treatments that will affect the lives of almost everyone — but it is just another example of science doing what science does.

References

Hutter, C. and Zenklusen, J.C. (2018). The Cancer Genome Atlas: Creating Lasting Value beyond Its Data. Cell 173, 283–285.

Hoadley, K.A. et al. (2018). Cell-of-Origin Patterns Dominate the Molecular Classification of 10,000 Tumors from 33 Types of Cancer. Cell 173, 291–304.

Hoadley, K.A. et al. (2014). Multiplatform Analysis of 12 Cancer Types Reveals Molecular Classification within and across Tissues of Origin. Cell 158, 929–944.

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John Sulston: Biologist, Geneticist and Guardian of our Heritage

 

Sir John Sulston died on 6 March 2018, an event reported world-wide by the press, radio and television. Having studied in Cambridge and then worked at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, he joined the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge to investigate how genes control development and behaviour, using as a ‘model organism’ the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. This tiny creature, 1 mm long, was appealing because it is transparent and most adult worms are made up of precisely 959 cells. Simple it may be but this worm has all the bits required for to live, feed and reproduce (i.e. a gut, a nervous system, gonads, intestine, etc.). For his incredibly painstaking efforts in mapping from fertilized egg to mature animal how one cell becomes two, two becomes four and so on to complete the first ‘cell-lineage tree’ of a multicellular organism, Sulston shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Bob Horvitz and Sydney Brenner.

Sir John Sulston

It became clear to Sulston that the picture of how genes control development could not be complete without the corresponding sequence of DNA, the genetic material. The worm genome is made up of 100 million base-pairs and in 1983 Sulston set out to sequence the whole thing, in collaboration with Robert Waterston, then at the University of Washington in St. Louis. This was a huge task with the technology available but their success indicated that the much greater prize of sequencing of the human genome — ten times as much DNA as in the worm — might be attainable.

In 1992 Sulston became head of a new sequencing facility, the Sanger Centre (now the Sanger Institute), in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire that was the British component of the Human Genome Project, one of the largest international scientific operations ever undertaken. Astonishingly, the complete human genome sequence, finished to a standard of 99.99% accuracy, was published in Nature in October 2004.

As the Human Genome Project gained momentum it found itself in competition with a private venture aimed at securing the sequence of human DNA for commercial profit — i.e., the research community would be charged for access to the data. Sulston was adamant that our genome belonged to us all and with Francis Collins — then head of the US National Human Genome Research Institute — he played a key role in establishing the principle of open access to such data, preventing the patenting of genes and ensuring that the human genome was placed in the public domain.

One clear statement of this intent was that, on entering the Sanger Centre, you were met by a continuously scrolling read-out of human DNA sequence as it emerged from the sequencers.

In collaboration with Georgina Ferry, Sulston wrote The Common Thread, a compelling account of an extraordinary project that has, arguably, had a greater impact than any other scientific endeavour.

For me and my family John’s death was a heavy blow. My wife, Jane, had worked closely with him since inception of the Sanger Centre and not only had his scientific influence been immense but he had also become a staunch friend and source of wisdom. At the invitation of John’s wife Daphne, a group of friends and relatives gathered at their house after the funeral. As darkness fell we went into the garden and once again it rang to the sound of chatter and laughter from young and old as we enjoyed one of John’s favourite party pastimes — making hot-air lanterns and launching them to drift, flickering to oblivion, across the Cambridgeshire countryside. John would have loved it and it was a perfect way to remember him.

Then …

When John Sulston set out to ‘map the worm’ the tools he used could not have been more basic: a microscope — with pencil and paper to sketch what he saw as the animal developed. His hundreds of drawings tracked the choreography of the worm to its final 959 cells and showed that, along the way, 131 cells die in a precisely orchestrated programme of cell death. The photomontage and sketch below are from his 1977 paper with Bob Horvitz and give some idea of the effort involved.

Photomontage of a microscope image (top) and (lower) sketch of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans showing cell nuclei. From Sulston and Horvitz, 1977.

 … and forty years on

It so happened that within a few days of John’s death Achim Trubiroha and colleagues at the Université Libre de Bruxelles published a remarkable piece of work that is really a descendant of his pioneering studies. They mapped the development of cells from egg fertilization to maturity in a much bigger animal than John’s worms — the zebrafish. They focused on one group of cells in the early embryo (the endoderm) that develop into various organs including the thyroid. Specificially they tracked the formation of the thyroid gland that sits at the front of the neck wrapped around part of the larynx and the windpipe (trachea). The thyroid can be affected by several diseases, e.g., hyperthyroidism, and in about 5% of people the thyroid enlarges to form a goitre — usually caused by iodine deficiency. It’s essential to determine the genes and signalling pathways that control thyroid development if we are to control these conditions.

For this mapping Trubiroha’s group used the CRISPR method of gene editing to mutate or knock out specific targets and to tag cells with fluorescent labels — that we described in Re-writing the Manual of Life.

A flavor of their results is given by the two sets of fluorescent images below. These show in real time the formation of the thyroid after egg fertilization and the effect of a drug that causes thyroid enlargement.

Live imaging of transgenic zebrafish to follow thyroid development in real-time (left). Arrows mark chord-like cell clusters that form hormone-secreting follicles (arrowheads) during normal development. The right hand three images show normal development (-) and goiter formation (+) induced by a drug. From Trubiroha et al. 2018.

John would have been thrilled by this wonderful work and, with a chuckle, I suspect he’d have said something like “Gosh! If we’d had gene editing back in the 70s we’d have mapped the worm in a couple of weeks!”

References

International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium Nature 431, 931–945; 2004.

John Sulston and Georgina Ferry The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome (Bantam Press, 2002).

Sulston, J.E. and Horvitz, H.R. (1977). Post-embryonic Cell Lineages of the Nematode, Caenorhabitis elegans. Development Biology 56, 110-156.

Trubiroha, A. et al. (2018). A Rapid CRISPR/Cas-based Mutagenesis Assay in Zebrafish for Identification of Genes Involved in Thyroid Morphogenesis and Function. Scientific Reports 8, Article number: 5647.

RoboClot

 

It was the Chinese, inevitably, who invented paper – during the Eastern Han period around 200 CE (or AD as I’d put it). Presumably by 201 AD some of the lads at the back of the class had discovered that this new stuff could be folded and launched to land on the desk of the local Confucius, generating much hilarity and presumably a few whacks with a bamboo cane.

Folding molecules

Not to be outdone some 21st century scholars have shown that you can do molecular origami with DNA. The idea is fairly simple: take a long strand of DNA (several thousand bases) and persuade it to fold into specific shapes by adding ‘staples’ — short bits of DNA (oligonucleotides). When you mix them together the staples and scaffold strands self-assemble in a single step. It’s pretty amazing but it’s driven by the simple concept of Watson-Crick base pairing (adenine (A) binds to thymine (T): guanine (G) to cytosine (C)).

These things are, of course, almost incomprehensibly small — they are biological molecules remember — each being a few nanometers long. Which means that you can plonk a billion on the head of a pin.

Working on this scale has given rise to the science of nanorobotics ­— making gadgets on a nanometre scale (10−9 meters or one thousandth of a millionth of a metre) and the gizmos themselves are nanorobots — nanobots to their friends.

Making parcels of DNA must be great fun but it’s not much use until you include the fact that you can stick protein molecules to your DNA carrier. If you choose a protein that has a known target, for example, something on the surface of a cell, you can now mail the parcels to an address within the body simply by injecting them into the circulation.

Molecular origami: Making a DNA parcel with a targeting protein. A bacteriophage is a virus that infects and replicates in bacteria, used here to make single strands of DNA. Short DNA ‘staples’ are designed to fold the scaffold DNA into specific shapes. Adding an aptamer (e.g., a protein that binds to a specific target molecule on a cell (an antigen)) permits targeting of the nanobot. When it sticks to a cell the package opens and the molecular payload is released (from Fu and Yan, 2012).

Open with care

Hao Yan and colleagues from Arizona State University have now taken nanobots a step further by adding a second protein to their targeted vehicle. For their targeting protein they used something that sticks to a protein present on the surface of cells that line the walls of blood vessels when they are proliferating (the target protein’s called nucleolin). Generally these (endothelial) cells aren’t proliferating so they don’t make nucleolin — and the nanobots pass them by. But growing tumours need to make their own blood supply. To do that they stimulate new vessels to sprout into the tumour (called angiogenesis) and this is what Hao Yan’s nanobots target.

As an anti-cancer tactic the nanobots carried a second protein: thrombin. This is a critical part of the process of coagulation by which damaged blood vessels set about repairing themselves. Thrombin’s role is to convert fibrinogen (circulating in blood) to fibrin strands, hence building up a blood clot to plug the hole. In effect the nanobots cause thrombosis, inducing a blood clot to block the supply line to the tumour.

Blood clotting (coagulation). Platelets form a plug strengthened by fibrin produced by the action of thrombin.

Does it work?

These DNA nanorobots showed no adverse effects either in mice or in Bama miniature pigs, which exhibit high similarity to humans in anatomy and physiology.

Fluorescently labeled nanobots did indeed target tumour blood vessels: the DNA wrapping opens when they attach to cells and the thrombin is released …

Fluorescent nanobots targetting tumour blood vessels (Li et al. 2018). The nanorobots have stuck to cells lining blood vessels (endothelial cells: green membrane) by attaching to nucleolin. After 8 hours the nanorobots (red) have been taken up by the cells and can be seen next to the nucleus (blue).

Most critically these little travellers did have effects on tumour growth. The localized thrombosis caused by the released thrombin resulted in significant tumour cell death and marked increase in the survival of treated mice.

Robotic DNA machines are now being referred to as ‘intelligent vehicles’ — a designation I’m not that keen on. Nevertheless, this is a cunning strategy, not least because, although much effort has gone into anti-angiogenic therapies for cancer, they have not been notably successful. Simply administering thrombin would presumably be fatal but, well wrapped up and correctly addressed, it seems to deliver.

Reference

Fu, J. and Yan, H. (2012). Controlled drug release by a nanorobot. Nature Biotechnology 30, 407-408.

Suping Li et al. (2018). A DNA nanorobot functions as a cancer therapeutic in response to a molecular trigger in vivo. Nature Biotechnology doi:10.1038/nbt.4071

One More Small Step

 

Back in the nineteenth century a chap called Augustus De Morgan came up with a set of laws that, when explained in English, sound like the lyrics of a Flanders & Swann song. Opaque to non-maths nerds they may be but they helped to build the mathematics of logic, so next time you meet AND / OR gates in electronics, spare him a thought.

In fact Augustus is rare — maybe unique — among mathematicians in that he’s not completely forgotten, for it was he who penned the lines:

Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so, 
ad infinitum.

Given that we now know there’s over 2,500 species of fleas ranging in size from tiny to nearly one centimeter long, it may be literally true. But here, for once, the truth doesn’t matter. It’s a silly rhyme but nonsense verse it is not for it could well serve as a motto for biology because it really captures the essential truth of life: the exquisite choreography of living systems by which incomprehensible numbers of interactions come together to make them work.

Human fleas. Don’t worry: you’ll know if you have them.

Unbidden, De Morgan’s ditty came into my head as I was reading the latest research paper from David Lyden’s group, which he very kindly sent me ahead of publication this week. Avid readers will know the name for we have devoted several episodes (Keeping Cancer Catatonic, Scattering the Bad Seed and Holiday Reading (4) – Can We Make Resistance Futile) to the discoveries of his group in tackling one of the key questions in cancer — namely, how do tumour cells find their targets when they spread around the body? Key because it is this process of ‘metastasis’ that causes most (over 90%) of cancer deaths and if we knew how it worked maybe we could block it.

A succinct summary of those already condensed episodes would be: (1) cells in primary tumours release ‘messengers’ into the circulation that ‘tag’ metastatic sites before any cells actually leave the tumour, (2) the messengers that do the site-tagging are small sacs — mini cells — called exosomes, and (3) they find specific addresses by carrying protein labels (integrins) that home in to different organs — we represented that in the form of a tube train map in Lethal ZIP codes that pulled the whole story together.

The next small step

Now what the folks from Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, Sloan Kettering and a host of other places have done is adapt a flow system to look more closely at exosomes.

Separating small bodies. Particles are injected into a flowing liquid (left) and cross flow at right angles through a membrane (bottom) permits separation on the basis of effective size (called asymmetrical flow field-flow fractionation).

They found that a wide variety of tumour cell types secrete two distinct populations of exosomes — small (60-80 nanometres diameter) and large (90-120 nm). What’s more they found a third type of nanoparticle, smaller than exosomes (less than 50 nm) and without a membrane — so it’s a kind of blob of lipids and proteins (a micelle would be a more scientific term) — that they christened exomeres.

Is it real?

A perpetual problem in biology is reproducibility — that is, whether a new finding can be replicated independently by someone else. Or, put more crudely, do I believe this? This is such an important matter that it’s worth a separate blog but for the moment we’re OK because the results in this paper speak for themselves. First, by using electron microscopy, Lyden et al could actually look at what they’d isolated and indeed discerned three distinct nano-populations — which is how they were able to put the size limits on them.

Electron microscopy of (left) the input mixture (pre-fractionation) and separated fractions: exomere, small exosomes and large exosomes released by tumour cells.. Arrows indicate exomeres (red), small exosomes (blue) and large exosomes (green), from Zhang et al. 2018.

But what’s most exciting in terms of the potential of these results is what’s in the packets. Looking at the fats (lipids), proteins and nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) they contained it’s clear that these are three distinct entities — which makes it very likely they have different effects.

Given their previous finding it must have been a great relief when Lyden & Co identified integrin address proteins in the two exosome sub-populations. But what’s really astonishing is the range of proteins born by these little chaps: something like 400 in exomeres, about 1000 in small exosomes and a similar number in the big ones — and the fact that each contained unique sets of proteins. The new guys — exomeres — carry among other proteins, metabolic enzymes so it’s possible that when they deliver their cargo it might be able to change the metabolic profile of its target. That could be important as we know such changes happen in cancer.

It’s a bewildering picture and working out even the basics of what these little guys do and how it influences cancer is, as we say, challenging. But I think I know a good man for the job!

Augustus De Morgan looking down.

Mathematicians have a bit of a tendency to look down on us experimentalists thrashing around in the undergrowth and I suspect that up in the celestial library, as old Augustus De Morgan thumbed through this latest paper, a slight smile might have come over his face and he could have been heard to murmur: “See, I told you.”

References

Zhang, H. et al. (2018). Identification of distinct nanoparticles and subsets of extracellular vesicles by asymmetric flow field-flow fractionation. Nature Cell Biology 20, 332–343. doi:10.1038/s41556-018-0040-4

Desperately SEEKing …

These days few can be unaware that cancers kill one in three of us. That proportion has crept up over time as life expectancy has gone up — cancers are (mainly) diseases of old age. Even so, they plagued the ancients as Egyptian scrolls dating from 1600 BC record and as their mummified bodies bear witness. Understandably, progress in getting to grips with the problem was slow. It took until the nineteenth century before two great French physicians, Laënnec and Récamier, first noted that tumours could spread from their initial site to other locations where they could grow as ‘secondary tumours’. Munich-born Karl Thiersch showed that ‘metastasis’ occurs when cells leave the primary site and spread through the body. That was in 1865 and it gradually led to the realisation that metastasis was a key problem: many tumours could be dealt with by surgery, if carried out before secondary tumours had formed, but once metastasis had taken hold … With this in mind the gifted American surgeon William Halsted applied ever more radical surgery to breast cancers, removing tissues to which these tumors often spread, with the aim of preventing secondary tumour formation.

Early warning systems

Photos of Halsted’s handiwork are too grim to show here but his logic could not be faulted for metastasis remains the cause of over 90% of cancer deaths. Mercifully, rather than removing more and more tissue targets, the emphasis today has shifted to tumour detection. How can they be picked up before they have spread?

To this end several methods have become familiar — X-rays, PET (positron emission tomography, etc) — but, useful though these are in clinical practice, they suffer from being unable to ‘see’ small tumours (less that 1 cm diameter). For early detection something completely different was needed.

The New World

The first full sequence of human DNA (the genome), completed in 2003, opened a new era and, arguably, the burgeoning science of genomics has already made a greater impact on biology than any previous advance.

Tumour detection is a brilliant example for it is now possible to pull tumour cell DNA out of the gemisch that is circulating blood. All you need is a teaspoonful (of blood) and the right bit of kit (silicon chip technology and short bits of artificial DNA as bait) to get your hands on the DNA which can then be sequenced. We described how this ‘liquid biopsy’ can be used to track responses to cancer treatment in a quick and non–invasive way in Seeing the Invisible: A Cancer Early Warning System?

If it’s brilliant why the question mark?

Two problems really: (1) Some cancers have proved difficult to pick up in liquid biopsies and (2) the method didn’t tell you where the tumour was (i.e. in which tissue).

The next step, in 2017, added epigenetics to DNA sequencing. That is, a programme called CancerLocator profiled the chemical tags (methyl groups) attached to DNA in a set of lung, liver and breast tumours. In Cancer GPS? we described this as a big step forward, not least because it detected 80% of early stage cancers.

There’s still a pesky question mark?

Rather than shrugging their shoulders and saying “that’s science for you” Joshua Cohen and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and a host of others rolled their sleeves up and made another step forward in the shape of CancerSEEK, described in the January 18 (2018) issue of Science.

This added two new tweaks: (1) for DNA sequencing they selected a panel of 16 known ‘cancer genes’ and screened just those for specific mutations and (2) they included proteins in their analysis by measuring the circulating levels of 10 established biomarkers. Of these perhaps the most familiar is cancer antigen 125 (CA-125) which has been used as an indicator of ovarian cancer.

Sensitivity of CancerSEEK by tumour type. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals (from Cohen et al., 2018).

The figure shows a detection rate of about 70% for eight cancer types in 1005 patients whose tumours had not spread. CancerSEEK performed best for five types (ovary, liver, stomach, pancreas and esophagus) that are difficult to detect early.

Is there still a question mark?

Of course there is! It’s biology — and cancer biology at that. The sensitivity is quite low for some of the cancers and it remains to be seen how high the false positive rate goes in larger populations than 1005 of this preliminary study.

So let’s leave the last cautious word to my colleague Paul Pharoah: “I do not think that this new test has really moved the field of early detection very far forward … It remains a promising, but yet to be proven technology.”

Reference

D. Cohen et al. (2018). Detection and localization of surgically resectable cancers with a multi-analyte blood test. Science 10.1126/science.aar3247.

Lorenzo’s Oil for Nervous Breakdowns

 

A Happy New Year to all our readers – and indeed to anyone who isn’t a member of that merry band!

What better way to start than with a salute to the miracles of modern science by talking about how the lives of a group of young boys have been saved by one such miracle.

However, as is almost always the way in science, this miraculous moment is merely the latest step in a long journey. In retracing those steps we first meet a wonderful Belgian – so, when ‘name a famous Belgian’ comes up in your next pub quiz, you can triumphantly produce him as a variant on dear old Eddy Merckx (of bicycle fame) and César Franck (albeit born before Belgium was invented). As it happened, our star was born in Thames Ditton (in 1917: his parents were among the one quarter of a million Belgians who fled to Britain at the beginning of the First World War) but he grew up in Antwerp and the start of World War II found him on the point of becoming qualified as a doctor at the Catholic University of Leuven. Nonetheless, he joined the Belgian Army, was captured by the Germans, escaped, helped by his language skills, and completed his medical degree.

Not entirely down to luck

This set him off on a long scientific career in which he worked in major institutes in both Europe and America. He began by studying insulin (he was the first to suggest that insulin lowered blood sugar levels by prompting the liver to take up glucose), which led him to the wider problems of how cells are organized to carry out the myriad tasks of molecular breaking and making that keep us alive.

The notion of the cell as a kind of sac with an outer membrane that protects the inside from the world dates from Robert Hooke’s efforts with a microscope in the 1660s. By the end of the nineteenth century it had become clear that there were cells-within-cells: sub-compartments, also enclosed by membranes, where special events took place. Notably these included the nucleus (containing DNA of course) and mitochondria (sites of cellular respiration where the final stages of nutrient breakdown occurs and the energy released is transformed into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) with the consumption of oxygen).

In the light of that history it might seem a bit surprising that two more sub-compartments (‘organelles’) remained hidden until the 1950s. However, if you’re thinking that such a delay could only be down to boffins taking massive coffee breaks and long vacations, you’ve never tried purifying cell components and getting them to work in test-tubes. It’s a process called ‘cell fractionation’ and, even with today’s methods, it’s a nightmare (sub-text: if you have to do it, give it to a Ph.D. student!).

By this point our famous Belgian had gathered a research group around him and they were trying to dissect how insulin worked in liver cells. To this end they (the Ph.D. students?!) were using cell fractionation and measuring the activity of an enzyme called acid phosphatase. Finding a very low level of activity one Friday afternoon, they stuck the samples in the fridge and went home. A few days later some dedicated soul pulled them out and re-measured the activity discovering, doubtless to their amazement, that it was now much higher!

In science you get odd results all the time – the thing is: can you repeat them? In this case they found the effect to be absolutely reproducible. Leave the samples a few days and you get more activity. Explanation: most of the enzyme they were measuring was contained within a membrane-like barrier that prevented the substrate (the chemical that the enzyme reacts with) getting to the enzyme. Over a few days the enzyme leaked through the barrier and, lo and behold, now when you measured activity there was more of it!

Thus was discovered the ‘lysosome’ – a cell-within-a cell that we now know is home to an array of some 40-odd enzymes that break down a range of biomolecules (proteinsnucleic acidssugars and lipids). Our self-effacing hero said it was down to ‘chance’ but in science, as in other fields of life, you make your own luck – often, as in this case, by spotting something abnormal, nailing it down and then coming up with an explanation.

In the last few years lysosomes have emerged as a major player in cancer because they help cells to escape death pathways. Furthermore, they can take up anti-cancer drugs, thereby reducing potency. For these reasons they are the focus of great interest as a therapeutic target.

Lysosomes in cells revealed by immunofluorescence.

Antibody molecules that stick to specific proteins are tagged with fluorescent labels. In these two cells protein filaments of F-actin that outline cell shape are labelled red. The green dots are lysosomes (picked out by an antibody that sticks to a lysosome protein, RAB9). Nuclei are blue (image: ThermoFisher Scientific).

Play it again Prof!

In something of a re-run of the lysosome story, the research team then found itself struggling with several other enzymes that also seemed to be shielded from the bulk of the cell – but the organelle these lived in wasn’t a lysosome – nor were they in mitochondria or anything else then known. Some 10 years after the lysosome the answer emerged as the ‘peroxisome’ – so called because some of their enzymes produce hydrogen peroxide. They’re also known as ‘microbodies’ – little sacs, present in virtually all cells, containing enzymatic goodies that break down molecules into smaller units. In short, they’re a variation on the lysosome theme and among their targets for catabolism are very long-chain fatty acids (for mitochondriacs the reaction is β-oxidation but by a different pathway to that in mitochondria).

Peroxisomes revealed by immunofluorescence.

As in the lysosome image, F-actin is red. The green spots here are from an antibody that binds to a peroxisome protein (PMP70). Nuclei are blue (image: Novus Biologicals)

Cell biology fans will by now have worked out that our first hero in this saga of heroes is Christian de Duve who shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Albert Claude and George Palade.

A wonderful Belgian. Christian de Duve: physician and Nobel laureate.

Hooray!

Fascinating and important stuff – but nonetheless background to our main story which, as they used to say in The Goon Show, really starts here. It’s so exciting that, in 1992, they made a film about it! Who’d have believed it?! A movie about a fatty acid!! Cinema buffs may recall that in Lorenzo’s Oil Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte played the parents of a little boy who’d been born with a desperate disease called adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). There are several forms of ALD but in the childhood disease there is progression to a vegetative state and death occurs within 10 years. The severity of ALD arises from the destruction of myelin, the protective sheath that surrounds nerve fibres and is essential for transmission of messages between brain cells and the rest of the body. It occurs in about 1 in 20,000 people.

Electrical impulses (called action potentials) are transmitted along nerve and muscle fibres. Action potentials travel much faster (about 200 times) in myelinated nerve cells (right) than in (left) unmyelinated neurons (because of Saltatory conduction). Neurons (or nerve cells) transmit information using electrical and chemical signals.

The film traces the extraordinary effort and devotion of Lorenzo’s parents in seeking some form of treatment for their little boy and how, eventually, they lighted on a fatty acid found in lots of green plants – particularly in the oils from rapeseed and olives. It’s one of the dreaded omega mono-unsaturated fatty acids (if you’re interested, it can be denoted as 22:1ω9, meaning a chain of 22 carbon atoms with one double bond 9 carbons from the end – so it’s ‘unsaturated’). In a dietary combination with oleic acid  (another unsaturated fatty acid: 18:1ω9) it normalizes the accumulation of very long chain fatty acids in the brain and slows the progression of ALD. It did not reverse the neurological damage that had already been done to Lorenzo’s brain but, even so, he lived to the age of 30, some 22 years longer than predicted when he was diagnosed.

What’s going on?

It’s pretty obvious from the story of Lorenzo’s Oil that ALD is a genetic disease and you will have guessed that we wouldn’t have summarized the wonderful career of Christian de Duve had it not turned out that the fault lies in peroxisomes.

The culprit is a gene (called ABCD1) on the X chromosome (so ALD is an X-linked genetic disease). ABCD1 encodes part of the protein channel that carries very long chain fatty acids into peroxisomes. Mutations in ABCD1 (over 500 have been found) cause defective import of fatty acids, resulting in the accumulation of very long chain fatty acids in various tissues. This can lead to irreversible brain damage. In children the myelin sheath of neurons is damaged, causing neurological defects including impaired vision and speech disorders.

And the miracle?

It’s gene therapy of course and, helpfully, we’ve already seen it in action. Self Help – Part 2 described how novel genes can be inserted into the DNA of cells taken from a blood sample. The genetically modified cells (T lymphocytes) are grown in the laboratory and then infused into the patient – in that example the engineered cells carried an artificial T cell receptor that enabled them to target a leukemia.

In Gosh! Wonderful GOSH we saw how the folk at Great Ormond Street Hospital adapted that approach to treat a leukemia in a little girl.

Now David Williams, Florian Eichler, and colleagues from Harvard and many other centres around the world, including GOSH, have adapted these methods to tackle ALD. Again, from a blood sample they selected one type of cell (stem cells that give rise to all blood cell types) and then used genetic engineering to insert a complete, normal copy of the DNA that encodes ABCD1. These cells were then infused into patients. As in the earlier studies, they used a virus (or rather part of a viral genome) to get the new genetic material into cells. They choose a lentivirus for the job – these are a family of retroviruses (i.e. they have RNA genomes) that includes HIV. Specifically they used a commercial vector called Lenti-D. During the life cycle of RNA viruses their genomes are converted to DNA that becomes a permanent part of the host DNA. What’s more, lentiviruses can infect both non-dividing and actively dividing cells, so they’re ideal for the job.

In the first phase of this ongoing, multi-centre trial a total of 17 boys with ALD received Lenti-D gene therapy. After about 30 months, in results reported in October 2017, 15 of the 17 patients were alive and free of major functional disability, with minimal clinical symptoms. Two of the boys with advanced symptoms had died. The achievement of such high remission rates is a real triumph, albeit in a study that will continue for many years.

In tracing this extraordinary galaxy, one further hero merits special mention for he played a critical role in the story. In 1999 Jesse Gelsinger, a teenager, became the first person to receive viral gene therapy. This was for a metabolic defect and modified adenovirus was used as the gene carrier. Despite this method having been extensively tested in a range of animals (and the fact that most humans, without knowing it, are infected with some form of adenovirus), Gelsinger died after his body mounted a massive immune response to the viral vector that caused multiple organ failure and brain death.

This was, of course, a huge set-back for gene therapy. Despite this, the field has advanced significantly in the new century, both in methods of gene delivery (including over 400 adenovirus-based gene therapy trials) and in understanding how to deal with unexpected immune reactions. Even so, to this day the Jesse Gelsinger disaster weighs heavily with those involved in gene therapy for it reminds us all that the field is still in its infancy and that each new step is a venture into the unknown requiring skill, perseverance and bravery from all involved – scientists, doctors and patients. But what better encouragement could there be than the ALD story of young lives restored.

It’s taken us a while to piece together the main threads of this wonderful tale but it’s emerged as a brilliant example of how science proceeds: in tiny steps, usually with no sense of direction. And yet, despite setbacks, over much time, fragments of knowledge come together to find a place in the grand jigsaw of life.

In setting out to probe the recesses of metabolism, Christian de Duve cannot have had any inkling that he would build a foundation on which twenty-first century technology could devise a means of saving youngsters from a truly terrible fate but, my goodness, what a legacy!!!

References

Eichler, F. et al. (2017). Hematopoietic Stem-Cell Gene Therapy for Cerebral Adrenoleukodystrophy. The New England Journal of Medicine 377, 1630-1638.

 

A Musical Offering 

It’s generally accepted that Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, musical composer of all time. In well over 1000 compositions he laid down the framework upon which rested virtually all Western music of the following 200 years. Of these works, The Musical Offering, written in 1747, is a collection of pieces based on a single theme that has been described as the most significant piano composition in history.

Along the way to becoming a unique composer, Bach married twice and sired twenty children, only ten of whom survived into adulthood. Those figures highlight another way in which JSB was something of a freak because, in 1750 when he died aged 65, the average life expectancy in Europe was under 40 years. For that reason cancers, being primarily being diseases of old age, were much less prominent then than now when, on average, we live to be over 80 and cancers account for about one in three deaths.

It’s safe to say that in the 18th century neither Bach nor anyone else knew anything of cancer yet alone that our genetic material carries tens of thousands of genes – a kind of molecular keyboard upon which cellular machinery plays to produce an output of proteins that distinguishes one cell type from another but is also continuously varying, even within individual cells. Bach would have been fascinated by this fluctuating molecular mosaic that, through the wonders of modern sequencing methods, we can display as ‘heat maps’ showing which genes are turned on (being expressed) and to what level.

Musical genes. Left: a heat map showing the pattern of genes being expressed at a given time in several different types of cell. Red: high expression level; green low expression. On the right is the same information transformed into musical notation using the Gene Expression Music Algorithm, GEMusicA (from Staege 2016).

With commendable vision a chap by the name of Martin Staege has come up with an alternative way of looking at the rather mind-blowing picture conveyed by heat maps. Staege is in the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg – appropriately as Bach’s eldest son studied at the University of Halle. His idea is that gene expression patterns can be transformed into sounds characterized by their frequency (pitch) and tone duration. In other words you can make genes play tunes – and what’s more compare the notes from different cell samples (e.g., normal and tumour cells) so that you can ‘hear’ the differences in gene expression.

Remarkable or what?!

Unsurprisingly, gene tunes sound more Alban Berg than Magic Flute, prompting the redoubtable Dr. Staege to go one step further by producing an algorithm that fits gene themes as best it can to more singable pieces – so you get a kind of difference melody. I don’t think Beethoven or Wagner would see this biological music as a threat and they might, like me, ask ‘what’s the point?’

To which, I guess, the answers are ‘It’s clever and fun’. It’s also yet another way of showing the power of DNA as an information storage medium, and making the point that in this guise it may, in due course, make a massive impact on our lives – much more mundane than musical genes but hugely more useful.

References

Staege, M. S. (2016). Gene Expression Music Algorithm-Based Characterization of the Ewing Sarcoma Stem Cell Signature. Stem Cells International
Volume 2016, Article ID 7674824, 10 pages http://dx.

Staege, M. S. (2015). A short treatise concerning a musical approach for the interpretation of gene expression data. Sci. Rep. 5, 15281.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hares And Tortoises

You may have noticed that the last few months have seen a bit of a DNA-fest in these pages. Don’t blame me. It’s all the fault of them scientists beavering away in their labs. We’ve just done “Making Movies in DNA“, in “And Now There Are Six!!” the genetic code was expanded from four to six units by making two new ones artificially and in “How Does DNA Do It?” we saw how words can be transformed into a sequence of DNA.

Now they’re at it again – or at least Stephen Kowalczykowski, James Graham and colleagues of the University of California at Davis are – revealing yet more astonishing things about this molecule, just when you could be thinking we’ve got the hang of it.

I might add that I’m grateful to my correspondent David Archer of The Society of Biology for bringing this piece of work to my notice as I’d missed it in the journal Cell (cries of ‘shame’ and ‘shurely shome mistake’ mingle in the background).

What is it this time?  

Well it’s two really astonishing things about DNA replication – the process by which double-stranded DNA is pulled apart so that each strand can act as a template for making a new DNA molecule. Result: as cells progress towards division, they double their DNA content so that equal amounts can be given to each new daughter cell. The first source of amazement is that Stephen K & chums have filmed this happening in real time. That’s a terrific feat – but what it reveals is quite bizarre.

Up to now it’s been assumed that the protein machines (DNA polymerases) doing the biz trundle along each of the separated strands of parental DNA at more or less the same speed. It would seem to make no sense to do otherwise and risk ending up with the job half done. In other words, the duplication of the two strands is coordinated. Is that what K & Co found? Not a bit of it! Extraordinary to relate, it appears that there’s no coordination between the strands at all!! Not for the first time in the history of molecular biology a technical advance has thrown up the totally unexpected. Before we look at the results in a bit more detail, a little background might be useful.

One divides into two

Making two identical copies of DNA from one original happens every time one cell divides to make two. And there’s a lot of it about. As is well known, we all start out as one cell (i.e. a fertilized egg) that turns into a human being – 50 trillion cells (that’s 5 + 13 zeroes). And even after we’ve been assembled it takes a lot of cell-making to keep us ticking over – about one million new cells every second. Just take a second to think about that: DNA comes in the well-known form of a double helix – two strands made up of chemical units (called nucleotides) linked together. Each unit has one of four bases (cytosine (C), guanine (G), adenine (A), or thymine (T)) and the strands are “complementary” because C pairs with G and A with T – a rigid rule that means if you know the sequence of bases in one strand you can work out what it is in the other. So far so simple. But, as we noted in “How Does DNA Do It?”, the coding power of DNA lies in its size. In us three billion letters are available to do the encoding. That is, there are just over 3,000 million units in each chain – i.e. 3,000 million base-pairs all told. And all of these are copied (twice) for every new cell.

DNA replication: The double helix is ‘unzipped’ so that each separated strand (turquoise) can act as a template for replicating a new partner strand (green). This creates a ‘replication fork’ – two branches of single stranded DNA. The new strands are made by protein complexes called DNA polymerases chugging along the parent strands, making new, complementary, strands as they go. There’s a small technical wrinkle here: new DNA chains can only be extended in one direction. This means that, while one strand can be made continuously (the leading strand), the other has to be put together in short bits as the parent strand is unwound, with the bits being joined up afterwards (the lagging strand).

 

 

Timing is everything

So the cell’s task is to unzip the double helix and use each exposed strand as a template for building a new partner strand. Things are helped by DNA being split into fragments (chromosomes: 23 pairs in humans + 2 sex chromosomes, 46 per cell all told). Even so, chromosomes are huge: the longest (chromosome 1) has nearly 250 million base-pairs; the shortest (chr 21) has about 47 million. The problem for the machinery that has evolved for the job is that it cranks along at 50 pairs per second – roughly a month per chromosome. But in a normal cell cycle the whole business is done in about two hours! That’s made possible because replication doesn’t do the obvious: start at one end and work its way to the other. Cunningly it hits lots of ‘start points’ – up to 100,000 in a single cell – making lots of short bits at the same time that are then joined up. In other words replication proceeds simultaneously from many different sites in chromosomes. Enzymes join the pieces together to make the final, complete copy.

It’s rather like you having some horribly repetitive chore to do – washing up after a big dinner. On your own you might start at one end of the pile and work through it but, far better, get one member of the family to do the plates, another the cutlery, etc. and – job done!!

Now for today’s bit of amazing science

What Kowalczykowski and friends did was to extract DNA from bugs (E.coli bacteria in fact, that can make DNA about 20 times faster than human cells), set up a replication system and measure what went on by microscopy, using a dye (SYTOX Orange, which is fluorescent) that sticks to complete double helices but not to single strands. Thus they could track progress along a strand as a new double helix formed. What they saw was that each strand acted independently of the other. Overall, the rate of replication of the two strands was about the same (as it must be in the end) but along the way there were stops and starts and sometimes one strand would grow at ten times the speed of the other. How weird is that?!!

Seeing DNA being made. In this picture microscopy reveals three extending stretches of double-stranded DNA being made (Graham et al. 2017). Click here to see video.

You could picture DNA replication as one of those Swiss railway trains cranking up a mountain at an improbable angle, using a rack-and-pinion to stop it sliding backwards. Think of the engaging cogs as new base-pairs. The train just keeps chugging along until it reaches the its next stop. But why doesn’t the DNA-making machinery do the same? Well, we haven’t much of a clue. One difference is that the train has its track (and rack) laid out before it, whereas DNA is continuously being unwound to open the template. Some bits are more difficult to unwind than others and this variation may cause the system to go in fits and starts. Another contribution many come from the many proteins involved in this complicated process. As well as the polymerases there are things that unwind DNA, stabilize it, stitch new bits together, etc. and these complexes are continuously forming, falling apart and re-assembling – all of which gives plenty of scope for erratic behaviour.

Fact of the matter is, we don’t know. So, in revealing completely unexpected behaviour, this technical triumph throws up the question of how two strands working independently manage, in the end, to come up with the perfect finished product.

But hey! This wouldn’t be science if we had all the answers!

Reference

Graham, J.E., Marians, K.J., Kowalczykowski, S.C. (2017). Independent and Stochastic Action of DNA Polymerases in the Replisome. Cell 169, 1201–1213.

Making Movies in DNA

Last time we reminded ourselves of one of the ways in which cancer is odd but, of course, underpinning not just cancers but all the peculiarities of life is DNA. The enduring wonder is how something so basically simple – just four slightly different chemical groups (OK, they are bases!) – can form the genetic material (the instruction book, if you like) for all life on earth. The answer, as almost everyone knows these days, is that there’s an awful lot of it in every cell – meaning that the four bases (A, C, G & T) have an essentially infinite coding capacity.

That doesn’t make it any the less wonderful but it does carry a huge implication: if something you can squeeze into a single cell can carry limitless information it must be the most powerful of all storage systems.

A picture’s worth a thousand words

We looked at the storage power of DNA a few months ago (in “How Does DNA Do It?”) and noted that its storage density is 1000 times that of flash memories, that it’s fairly easy to scan text and transform the pixels into genetic code and that, as an example, someone has already put Shakespeare’s sonnets into DNA form.

Now Seth Shipman, George Church and colleagues at Harvard have taken the field several steps forward by capturing black and white images and a short movie in DNA. Moreover they’ve managed to get these ‘DNA recordings’ taken up by living cells from which they could subsequently recover the images.

Crumbs! How did they do it?

First they used essentially the text method to encode images of a human hand: assign the four bases (A, C, G & T) to four pixel colours (this gives a grayscale image: colours can be acquired by using groups of bases for each pixel). These DNA sequences were then introduced into bacteria (specifically E. coli) by electroporation (an electrical pulse briefly opens pores in the cell membrane).

The cells treat this foreign DNA as though it was from an invading virus and switch on their CRISPR system (summarized in “Re-writing the Manual of Life”). This takes short pieces of viral DNA and inserts them into the cell’s own genome in the form of ‘spacers’ (the point being that the stored sequences confer ‘adaptive immunity’: the cell has an immunological memory so it is primed to respond effectively if it’s infected again by that viral pathogen).

In this case, however, the cells have been fooled: the ‘spacers’ generated carry encoded pictures, rather than viral signatures.

Because spacers are short it’s obvious that you’ll need lots of them to carry the information in a photo. To keep track when it comes to reassembling the picture, each DNA fragment was tagged with a barcode (and fortunately we explained cellular barcoding in “A Word From The Nerds”).

Once incorporated in the bugs the information was maintained over many bacterial generations (48 in fact) and is recoverable by high-throughput sequencing and reconstruction of the patterns using the barcodes.

And the movie bit?

Simple. In principle they used the same methods to encode sequential frames.

Pictures in DNA.

Top: Using triplets of bases to encode 21 pixel colours. Images of a human hand (top) and a horse (bottom) were captured. For the movie they used freeze frames taken in 1872 by the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge. These showed that, for a fraction of a second, a galloping horse lifts all four hooves off the ground. Seemingly this won a return for the sometime California governor, Leland Stanford (he of university-founding fame) who had put a wager on geegees doing just that. From Shipman et al., 2017. You can see the movie here.

Getting the picture clear

To recap, in case you’re wondering if this is some scientific April Fools’ prank. What Church & Co. did is scan pictures and transform pixel density into the genetic code (i.e. sequences of the four bases A, C, G & T). They then made DNA carrying these sequences, persuaded bacteria to take up the DNA and incorporate it into their own genomes and, after growing many generations of the bugs, extracted their DNA, sequenced it and reconstructed the original images. By scanning sequential frames this can be extended to movies.

It’s not science fiction – but it is pretty amazing. With a droll turn of phrase Seth Shipman said “We want to turn cells into historians” and the work does have significant implications in showing something of the scope of biological memory systems.

Won’t be long before the trendy, instead of birthday presents of electronic family photo albums, are giving small tubes of bugs!

References

Shipman, S.L., Nivala, J., Macklis, J.D. & Church, G.M. (2017). CRISPR–Cas encoding of a digital movie into the genomes of a population of living bacteria. Nature 547, 345–349.

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!

Reference

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