And Now There Are Six!!

Scientists eh! What a drag they can be! Forever coming up with new things that the rest of us have to wrap our minds around (or at least feel we should try).

Readers of these pages will know I’m periodically apt to wax rhapsodic about ‘the secret of life’ – the fact that all living things arise from just four different chemical units, A, C, G and T. Well, from now on it seems I’ll need to watch my words – or at least my letters – though maybe for a while I can leave it on the back burner in the “things that have been but not yet” category, to use the melodic prose of Christopher Fry.

Who dunnit?

The problem is down to Floyd Romesberg and his team at the Scripps Research Institute in California.

Building on a lot of earlier work, they’ve made synthetic units that stick together to form pairs – just like A-T and C-G do in double-stranded DNA. But, as these novel chemicals (X & Y) are made in the lab, the bond they form is an unnatural base pair.

Left: Two intertwined strands of DNA are held together in part by hydrogen bonds. Right top: Two such bonds (dotted lines) link adenine (A) to thymine (T); three form between guanine (G) and cytosine (C). These bases attach to sugar units (ribose) and phosphate groups (P) to form DNA chains. Right bottom: Synthetic X and Y units can also stick together and, via ribose and phosphate, become part of DNA.

After much fiddling Romesberg’s group derived E. coli microbes that would take up X and Y when they were fed to the cells as part of their normal growth medium. The cells treat X and Y like the units they make themselves (A, C, G & T) and insert them in new DNA – so a stretch of genetic code may then read: A-C-G-T-X-T-A-C-Y-A-T-… And, once part of DNA, the novel units are passed on to the next generation.

Science fiction?
If this has you thinking creation and exploitation of entirely new life forms?!!’ you’re not alone. Seemingly Romesberg is frequently asked if he’s setting up Jurassic Park but, as he points out, the modified bugs he’s created survive only as long as they’re fed X and Y so if they ‘escape’ (being bugs this would probably be down the drain rather than over a fence), they die. Cunning eh?!!

Is this coming to a gene near you?
No. It is, however, clear that more synthetic bases will be made, expanding the power of the genetic code yet further. What isn’t yet known is what the cells will make of all this. In other words, the whole point of tinkering with DNA is to modify the code to make novel proteins. In the first instance the hope is that these might be useful in disease treatment. Rather longer-term is the notion that new organisms might emerge with specific functions – e.g., bugs that break down plastic waste materials.

At the moment all this is speculation. But what is now fact is amazing enough. After 4,000 million years since the first life-forms emerged, more than five billion different species have appeared (and mostly disappeared) on earth – all based on a genetic code of just four letters.

Now, in a small lab in southern California, Mother Nature has been given an upgrade. It’s going to be fascinating to see what she does with it!


Zhang, Y. et al. (2017). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, 1317-1322.

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.

Seeing a New World

May I wish readers a Happy New Year – and indeed extend my felicitations to non-readers with the hope that they too will become followers! What a good idea! Not least because I suspect many are viewing the new year with a mixture of anxiety and despair. But I can promise there’s nothing like the sanity of science to restore you after a few minutes contemplating how we’re doing on the economic and political fronts.

Your starter for 2017

By happy chance a few weeks ago I tried to explain how it’s now possible to ‘re-write the manual of life’ – that is, to engineer our DNA, to fix broken genes if you like. This means that, in theory, it’s possible to correct errors in our genetic code that cause genetic diseases. As there are over 6,000 of these and they include Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis and Alzheimer’s disease, there’s no need to say it’s important. There are several ways of going about this but the one I described is called CRISPR and it’s had a lot of media coverage.

Right on cue

Well done then Keiichiro Suzuki, Juan Carlos Belmonte and friends from the Salk Institute in California together with colleagues from other centres in Spain, Saudi Arabia and China for their December paper describing a new CRISPR twist. They used a rat model of retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that is a major cause of inherited blindness, afflicting about one and a half million people worldwide (one in 4,000 in the UK).

The CRISPR-Cas9 system is great but it works best in dividing cells (e.g., in skin and gut that are renewing all the time) and it’s particularly useful for knocking out genes rather than inserting new DNA. The latest modification allows a new gene to be inserted into a specific site in the DNA of cells that are not dividing (e.g., those of the eye or brain).

The bits of CRISPR-Cas9, which insert DNA at very precise locations within the genome, are delivered to target cells as part of an inert virus. However, the package also includes DNA that encourages the cells to use a repair process that can be turned on even in non-dividing cells. So CRISPR-Cas9 cuts the cell’s DNA at an exact sequence and the cell then repairs the double-strand breaks (by a process called non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) that glues the broken ends directly together). Give the cell a new bit of DNA (e.g., your favorite gene) and that will get patched in – bear in mind that the cell doesn’t ‘know’ what it’s doing: it just tries to fix damaged DNA with whatever’s at hand.

And the target?

Retinitis pigmentosa occurs when a chunk of a gene called Mertk is lost. After quite a lot of experiments to show that their method worked, Suzuki, Belmonte & Co made a viral carrier that included a normal Mertk gene and injected it under the retina of rats with the disease. After about 5 weeks the rats were making Mertk RNA as a result of the gene being correctly ‘knocked-in’ to eye cells. The light-detecting region of the eye, greatly reduced by the disease, was significantly restored, with associated appearance of MERTK protein.

      Diseased    Normal     Treated                         Diseased         Normal         Treated


Left trio: Sections of the light-detecting layers of the eye in diseased (left), normal (centre) and diseased post-treatment rats (right). Right trio: corresponding fluorescence images showing MERTK expression (red: highlighted by white arrows); Cells labeled blue. (Suzuki et al. Nature 1–6 (2016) doi:10.1038/nature20565)

How did the rats see it?

Well, after treatment they were able to detect light and had significantly recovered their visual functions, albeit not to completely normal levels.

The usual caveats apply: the method isn’t hyper-efficient and a human treatment is still a long way off. Nevertheless, it’s a significant step.

The same group has also shown, using a way of re-programming the expression of just four genes, that it’s possible to arrest the signs of ageing. In other words, in mice this time, tinkering with these genes can increase lifespan – and yes, we have versions of these genes and in us they also control cell renewal.

So the New Year message is clear to see. If we can avoid turning the planet into a desert or blowing ourselves to smithereens the future is really rosy – and maybe even infinite!


Suzuki, K. et al. (2016). In vivo genome editing via CRISPR/Cas9 mediated homology-independent targeted integration. Nature 540, 144-149.

Ocampo, A. et al. (2016). In Vivo Amelioration of Age-Associated Hallmarks by Partial Reprogramming. Cell 167, 1719–1733.

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.


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.


Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?


Question: when is a gene not a gene? Answer: when it’s a pseudogene.

Genes are familiar enough these days when the acronym DNA has become part of everyday speech “It is in Toyota’s DNA that mistakes made once will not be repeated”, as the CEO of Toyota rather sinisterly remarked. You could say that’s pseudo-scientific rubbish but, despite that kind of liberty-taking, most will know that a gene is a stretch of our genetic material (DNA) that carries the code to make a closely related RNA molecule that, in turn, may be used as a template to make a protein ­– it’s the molecular unit of heredity. Well known too is that the Greeks gave us ‘pseudo’ – but what’s a ‘lying’ or ‘false’ gene – and who cares?

No prizes for guessing that we should all be interested because it’s emerging that pseudogenes can be important players in cancer.

Player’s biography

Pseudogenes are somewhat disreputable because they are relatives of normal genes that along the evolutionary highway have become dysfunctional by losing the capacity to be ‘expressed’ – that is, their code can no longer be transformed into RNA and protein. You could think of them as an example of the shambolic way in which species have evolved by random happenstance so that they work in their own particular niches. And if you want the outstanding example of unintelligent design, look no further than yourself, as we did in Holiday Reading (2), Poking the Blancmange.

Just for background, although it doesn’t affect the main story, there are three ways in which our genome can acquire a pseudogene:

1. A normal gene becomes functionally extinct: odd mutational events disable the stretches of DNA that control its expression. The gene is like a siding on a railway that isn’t used for years and years until eventually the points  seize up (it would be a ‘switch’ on US railroads) and the cell machinery can no longer get at it – but when this does happen we get by without that gene.

2. During evolution genes quite often get duplicated – giving multiple copies: if one of these loses its regulatory bits the duplicate gene is switched off – it’s become a ghost.

3. We owe about 8% of our genome to viruses – mainly those with RNA genomes (retroviruses) whose life-cycle turns their RNA into DNA that has then been stuck into our genome. And that’s a lot (about 100,000 bits of retrovirus DNA) especially bearing in mind that only about 1% of our genome encodes proteins.

So our precious genome is littered with corpses and fragments thereof. In the past there’s been a regrettable tendency to label this material as ‘junk’ but increasingly we’re now discovering that there may be genetic life after death, so to speak. It’s not surprising if you think about it. If random events can inactivate a gene then they might do the reverse, even if that may be a much rarer event. And indeed it’s now clear that pseudogenes can be brought back to life through the random mutational events that characterise the rough and tumble of cellular life.

So not all pseudogenes are extinct then?

Correct. Obviously we wouldn’t be wittering on about them had not some bright sparks just shown that pseudogenes – or at least one in particular – can be re-awakened to play a part in cancer. The luminaries are Florian Karreth, Pier Paolo Pandolfi and friends from all over the place (USA, UK, Italy, Singapore) who found that a pseudogene called BRAFP1 (a relative of the normal BRAF gene) can help to drive cancer development. Some earlier studies had shown that BRAFP1 was expressed (i.e. RNA was made from DNA) in various human tumours but Karreth & Co extended this, detecting significant levels of the pseudogene RNA in lymphomas and thyroid tumours and also in cells from melanoma, prostate cancer and lung cancer, whilst it’s not switched on in the corresponding normal cells.

To show that this pseudogene can drive cancers they genetically engineered its over-expression in mice, whereupon the animals developed an aggressive malignancy akin to human lymphoma (specifically diffuse large B cell lymphoma). Short-circuiting an enormous amount of work, it emerged that the pseudogene up-regulated a signaling pathway involving its normal counterpart, BRAF, that drives proliferation.

106 pic

How a pseudogene (BRAFP1) might drive cancer. Top: The scheme illustrates the ‘central dogma’ of molecular biology: DNA makes RNA makes protein. In normal cells a family of micro RNAs (different coloured wiggles) regulate the level of BRAF RNA and hence of BRAF protein (above white line).  Bottom: When the pseudogene BRAFP1 is switched on its RNA competes for the negative regulators: the result is more BRAF RNA making more BRAF protein – making cancer (Karreth et al., 2015).

Interfering RNA

The pseudogene’s RNA manages to interfere with normal control by targeting another type of RNA – micro RNAs, so called because they’re very short (about 20 bases (units) long – so they’re encoded by tiny stretches of the over 3,000 million units that make up the genome). Small they may be but there are hundreds of them and it’s become clear over the last few years that they play critical roles in regulating how much protein is made from specific RNAs. Their method is simple: they recognize (i.e. bind to) stretches of RNA that encode proteins, thereby blocking translation into protein.

Karreth & Co showed that there are about 40 different micro RNAs that can stick to the RNAs encoding BRAF or BRAFP1. Normally when there’s no (or very little) BRAFP1 around they have only BRAF to act on – and their role is to control the proliferation signal it transmits – i.e. to keep that signal to what’s required for normal cell growth control. BUT, when the pseudogene RNA is made in significant amounts the attentions of the 40 micro RNAs are divided. Result: more BRAF RNA, more BRAF protein, higher cell proliferation.

It’s a bit like you’re just sitting down to a family dinner for four when there’s a knock on the door and in walks long lost Uncle Bert, complete with wife and two kids in tow. Of course you invite them to dine too – but now a meal for four has to stretch to eight. There is something for everybody – just not as much. Similarly for the regulators of BRAF: when BRAFP1 is present there’s half as much of the RNA regulators for each – and the result, bearing mind that they are negative regulators, is that the activity of BRAF goes up and the cells proliferate more avidly. The pseudogene is driving cancer.

First but not last

For decades pseudogenes were thought of as ‘junk’ DNA along with most of the rest of the genome that didn’t encode proteins – though I might say that was a concept I never promoted. Beware labeling anything in our genome as junk for it may rise, Kraken like, to remind us of our ignorance. And, now that one pseudogene has come in from the cold and been shown to drive some cancers, you can be confident that others will follow.


Karreth, F.A. et al. (2015). The BRAF Pseudogene Functions as a Competitive Endogenous RNA and Induces Lymphoma In Vivo. Cell 161, 319–332.

The Blink of an Eye

You might not have thought of it in quite this way but cancer biology is a bit like having kids. It seems you only have to turn your back and things have changed, not so as to be unrecognizable but enough to have you blinking in surprise, shock or horror. In the cancer field it’s true that, especially over the 12 years since human DNA was first completely sequenced, a fair bit of the jaw-dropping has been due to astonishing technical advances. Thus human genomes (i.e. their DNA sequence) can be laid bare in 24 hours – The International Cancer Genome Consortium now has over 10,000 cancer genomes in its database – and the power of the panoply of ’omics methods to probe ever deeper into the mind-boggling complexity of tumours is quite staggering (we risked a quick peep at just how tricky it is to disentangle a picture of the biology from the vast amounts of data in A Word From The Nerds).

Cancer’s simple

These revelations often leave us gasping at the variety and adaptability of nature and how that shows up time and again in the microworld of cancers. Of course, we’re used to the world being ever-changing but we like to think there are some things that are fixed. The Earth still rolled round the Sun even after the aeroplane was invented. When it comes to cancer the simple but fairly firm idea is that cells pick up changes in their genetic material (i.e. mutations in DNA) and if these affect an appropriate set of genes (i.e. encoded proteins) a cell starts misbehaving – multiplying when it shouldn’t or faster than normal. And that’s cancer. Of the twenty-odd thousand genes that make human beings, several hundred have this ability to be trouble-makers – and a handful at any one time (perhaps five to ten) is all it takes. Like any team, there are some high profile players: genes that crop up time and again in mutant form driving all sorts of different tumours. There’s maybe a dozen of these. The rest are bit part players: actors who can steal the show with a cameo role. In others words they’re low frequency cancer drivers, perfectly capable of doing the job but generally keeping a low profile.

All of which is fine: we can hang on to what we thought we knew. Cancers are caused by cumulative mutations – things are just complicated a bit because of the more or less infinite subtlety that the different combinations can cause. So cancer’s really pretty simple.

Oh no it’s not!

However, just once in a while – mercifully, or we’d all go potty – something comes along that has us, if not standing on our heads, at least wondering which way is up. Welcome Iñigo Martincorena, Peter Campbell and pals from The Sanger Institute in Cambridge – a regular source of wide-eyed wonder in genomics.

They’ve just done something that, on the face of it, was very odd. They carried out a thorough sequence analysis of samples of normal human skin, the skin in question being from eyelids. The plan was to try to get a picture of how cancers develop and eyelid skin is a good place to look because it gets a relatively high exposure to sun. Moreover, it’s easier to get hold of than you might think: there’s an age-related condition in which the skin loses its elasticity causing the eyelid to droop – which can be treated by surgery, i.e. cutting out some of the skin.

Fasten your seat belts: here comes the shaker. In 234 eyelid samples (biopsies) from four people the number of mutations was similar to that in many cancers! Yet more amazing, the mutated genes included most of the key ‘drivers’ of one of the major forms of skin cancer.

Putting numbers on it, they found about 140 driver mutations per square centimeter of skin.

The type of DNA damage was characteristic of the effect of ultraviolet light (e.g., changing C to T – i.e. the base cytosine is mutated to thymine) – so at least that wasn’t a surprise.

1 sq cm

Groups of mutant cells (clones) in a 1 square centimeter of normal eyelid skin.

The circles represent samples of skin that were sequenced. Their sizes and the representation of nested clones are based on the sequences obtained. The outermost layers of normal skin can therefore be viewed as “effectively a battlefield of hundreds of competing mutant clones in every square centimeter of skin.” (from Martincorena et al. 2015).

As Iñigo & Co put it ‘aged sun-exposed skin is a patchwork of thousands of evolving clones with over a quarter of cells carrying cancer-causing mutations.’ Notably, there were clones carrying two or three driver mutations – and yet the tissue showed no sign of cancer and functioned quite normally (apart from its wonky elastic).

Close your eyes: time for a re-think

So, there are thousands of mutations in each skin cell with hundreds of evolving clones per square centimeter and the profile of driver mutations varies between individuals. The obvious question, therefore, is ‘why isn’t this tissue cancerous?’ We don’t know but, given that key ‘drivers’ are present, it seems that these cells either have a kind of master ‘off switch’ that suppresses potent driver combinations or they need a further ‘on switch.’ There’s no evidence for either of these, nor is it clear whether other cell types can show this kind of restraint.

And there’s one more troubling point. Many cancer drugs are designed to target driver mutations and thus to kill the carrier cells. But if these mutations can crop up in normal cells, any such ‘cancer specific’ drugs might cause a good deal of what the military term collateral damage.

As ever in science, an exciting new finding raises yet more questions. Answers will be forthcoming at some point. Just don’t blink!


Martincorena, I. et al. (2015). High burden and pervasive positive selection of somatic mutations in normal human skin. Science 348, 880-886.

Trouble With The Neighbours

It may seem odd to the point of negligence that a problem mankind has been grappling with since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians should, within the last ten years or so, be shown to have a whole new dimension, scarcely conceived hitherto. This hidden world, often now called the tumour microenvironment, is created as solid tumours develop and attract a variety of normal cells from the host to form a cellular cloud that envelops them and supports their growth (as we noted in Cooperative Cancer Groupies). We shouldn’t beat ourselves up for being slow to grasp its existence yet alone its importance – just take it as a reminder of the multi-faceted complexity that is cancer.

It’s true that over one hundred years ago the London physician Stephen Paget came up with his “seed and soil” idea – the notion that when cells escape from a primary tumour and spread to secondary sites (metastasis) they need to find a suitable spot that will nourish their growth, otherwise they perish – a fate that befalls most of them, fortunately for us.

But in the twenty-first century …

Perceptive though that idea was, it didn’t relate to the goings on in the vicinity of primary tumours – where the current picture is indeed of a cosmopolitan crowd of cellular groupies being recruited as the tumor starts to grow such that they infiltrate and closely interact with the cancer cells. The groupies are attracted by chemical messengers released by tumour cells – but it becomes a two-way communication, with messenger proteins shuttling to and fro between the different cell types.

Tumor uenvirThe tumour neighbourhood.

Two-way communication between host cells and tumor cells.

 White blood cells (e.g., lymphocytes and macrophages) are one group that succumbs to the magnetism of tumours. They’re part of the immune response that initially tries to eliminate the abnormal growth but, in an extraordinary transformation, when tumour cells manage to evade this defense the recruited cells change sides so to speak, switching their action to release signals that actively support tumor growth. The idea of boosting the initial anti-tumour response, thereby using the host defence system to increase the efficiency of tumour elimination, is the basis of immunotherapy, a popular research field at present to which we will return in a later piece.

Who’s who among the groupies

The finding that cells flooding into the ambience of a tumour can affect growth of the cancer has focussed attention on identifying all the constituents of the cellular cloud and unraveling their actions. Two recent studies by Claudio Isella from the University of Turin and Alexandre Calon from Barcelona, with their colleagues, have looked at a type of bowel cancer that has a particularly poor prognosis and used an ingenious ploy to lift the veil on who’s doing what to whom in the tumour milieu.

The tumours were initially classified on the basis of a genetic signature – that is, a snapshot of which genes are active in a tumour sample – ‘switched on’ or ‘expressed’ in the jargon – meaning that the information encoded in a stretch of DNA sequence is being used to make a functional gene product, usually a protein. They then used the crafty tactic of implanting human tumour cells into mice (the mice are ‘immunocompromised’ so that they don’t reject the human cells), separated the major types of cell in the tumours that grew and then looked at the genes expressed in those sub-sets. Remarkably, it emerged that, of the cell groupies that infiltrate into primary tumours, fibroblasts are particularly potent at driving tumour growth and metastasis. Fibroblasts are a cell type that makes the molecular scaffold that gives structure and shape to the various tissues and organs in animals – so it’s a surprise, to say the least, to find that cells with a rather mundane day job can play an important role in cancer progression. In this model system the sequence differences between corresponding human and mouse genes confirm that the predominant driver is mouse cells infiltrating the human tumours. Perhaps it shouldn’t be quite such a shock to find fibroblasts dabbling in cancer as we have met cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) before as cells that, by releasing leptin, can promote the growth and invasion of breast cancer cells (in Isn’t Science Wonderful? Obesity Talks to Cancer).

How useful might this be?

As ever, this is just one more small step. However, the other key finding from this work is that a critical signal for the CAFs is a protein called transforming growth factor beta (TGFβ) and a small molecule that blocks its signal inhibits metastasis of human tumour cells in the mouse model. So yet again the cancer biologist’s best friend gives a glimmering of hope for human therapy.


Isella, C. et al. (2015). Stromal contribution to the colorectal cancer transcriptome. Nature Genet.

Calon, A. et al. (2015). Stromal gene expression defines poor-prognosis subtypes in colorectal cancer. Nature Genet.

Gentlemen! For goodness’ sake …

I reckon there should be a 21st century addition to the family etiquette handbook banning laptops at the breakfast table. It’s anti-social and indeed downright rude: at best you get to your emails ten minutes quicker but it’s also really stupid because computers do not thrive on a diet of milkdrops, cornflake fragments and bits of toast. I never appear without mine – and with it I bring another potential, disgraceful side-effect, manifested in our household on the second day of the New Year when, a few minutes after I’d sat down, booted up and started munching, the air gradually began to turn blue. “Oh dear” muttered youngest son: “he’s on to the science pages of the broadsheets: fingers in ears.” How shrewd. And what good advice.

Rattling my cage

So what was it that so wound me up when I was looking forward to a rather non-sciency, tranquil opening to the year? “Most cancers are caused by bad luck not genes or lifestyle, say scientists”, a headline trumpeted by The Telegraph was a great start, backed-up by much the same parroted in The Independent and The Guardian. The only good news was that, try as I did, I could find no equivalent coverage in The New York Times or The Sydney Morning Herald. Let’s hear it for the colonials – or at least their science editors!

What’s my problem?

Why is it that this sort of journalism so annoys and certainly did so on further reading of those new year contributions? Well, partly because it’s headline-driven rather than a thoughtful effort to inform the public. And then because what’s propagated isn’t totally wrong – that would be easy to deal with – but rather it’s a confused mish-mash of half-truths guaranteed to confuse utterly anyone who doesn’t have an assured grip on their molecular wits.

Let’s get things clear

First let’s get the basic picture clear, then see what “the scientists” really said in this new piece of work and finally illustrate how the Gentlemen (and Gentlewomen) of the Press get me so incensed.

Asked to sketch a current cancer portrait one might say: Cancers are caused by damage to DNA, i.e. mutations. Of our 20,000 or so genes several hundred can acquire mutations that change the activity of the proteins they encode to contribute to cancer development. Only a small number (half a dozen or so) of these ‘driver’ mutations, acting together, are required for cancer to emerge. Thus almost limitless combinations of drivers can arise. The effect of these cancer ‘drivers’ is to make cells proliferate (i.e. divide to make more cells) either at a faster rate than normal, or at the wrong time or in an abnormal place. Environmental factors (e.g., smoking) can increase the mutation rate and hence the chance that cancers will evolve. Most mutations accumulate during the lifetime of the individual (hence most cancers are ‘diseases of old age’). However, about 10% of cancers are started by inherited mutations (that the patient is born with), with further mutations being acquired after birth.

We should also bear in mind that collectively cancer comprise about 200 distinct diseases and that at the level of DNA sequence every tumour is unique.

Pancreatic cancer cells


Cancer cells dividing. Photograph: Visuals Unlimited, Inc./Dr. Stanley Flegler.




What’s new?

The work that the journalists caught on to didn’t describe any new experiments but instead looked at the long-standing puzzle of why cancers, although able to arise anywhere in the body, have a strong tissue bias. For example, tumours are twenty times more common in the large intestine than in the small intestine.

Noting that within many tissues most cells are short-lived and don’t give rise to progeny (and so are unlikely to initiate a tumour), the authors focused on the cells that can self-renew and are therefore responsible for the continued existence and repopulation of the tissue (often called stem cells). Searching the literature, they found 31 tissue types for which it was possible to work out how many stem cell divisions occur in an average human lifetime. Lo and behold, it turned out that the number of divisions correlated quite well with the lifetime risk for cancer in that tissue type i.e. the more replications of stem cells that a tissue requires over its lifetime to sustain its functional, the greater the risk of a tumour emerging in that tissue.

An interpretation of this is that the majority of cancers arise (i.e. are started) as a result of random mutations occurring during DNA replication in normal, non-cancerous cells. The underlying point here is that every time one cell makes two it must first duplicate its genetic material (i.e. replicate its DNA). This process is amazingly efficient but it’s not perfect (cells make a mistake once for every one thousand million coding units (i.e. bases) incorporated into new DNA). In the abstract of their paper the authors describe cancers initiated by these naturally occurring mutations as “bad luck” – unfortunately in my view, as the expression was a sure-fire red rag to the press bulls.

A really irritating example

From The Telegraph: “For years health experts have warned that tumours are driven by a bad diet, lack of exercise, or gene errors passed down from parents… But now a study has shown that most cancers are primarily caused by bad luck rather than poor lifestyle choices or defective DNA.”

NO IT HASN’T. Do you not read what you’ve written and consider how it might come across to readers who think they’ve grasped the basic picture, as summarized above under Let’s get things clear?

What the study confirms is that the major force behind cancers is the accumulation of mutations (defective DNA if you wish) as cells replicate during the lifetime of the individual. To the risk of getting cancers posed by this background to life may be added environmental factors that promote DNA damage and inherited variants in DNA (see A Taxing Inheritance for more about parental contributions).

Is this really anything new?

Well, it’s marginal and certainly not enough to merit the above headlines. The new work doesn’t alter in any way our summary. However, it’s interesting in that it offers an explanation for the wide variation in cancer incidence across different tissues and makes the point, for instance, that the relatively high rate of cell renewal in the lung makes this organ particularly susceptible to the mutagenic effects of cigarette smoke.

So, what about luck?

First we remain as we were: cancers are a fact of life – they’re hard-wired into the biology of life and they’ll come to all of us if we live long enough.

It is certainly true that there are many cancer patients who have had bad luck. They may have always eaten healthily, kept active and physically fit and been teetotal since birth and yet be stricken by, for example, a brain tumour or pancreatic cancer for which there are no known environmental risk factors that we can do anything about. They may have never smoked but nonetheless develop lung cancer (think of Roy Castle).

But it remains the case that for many cancers, it isn’t just about luck, it’s about choices, both for society and for individuals. Mention of environmental factors reminds us that mankind really isn’t doing very well on the self-help front. Eliminating smoking would reduce the global cancer burden (14 million new cases, over 8 million deaths per year) by about 22%. Infections, for example from contaminated drinking water, start about 20% of all cancers whilst alcohol consumption has a hand in about 4% and in the UK over 20% of bowel cancers are linked to eating red and processed meat.

Calm down!

I know that for all the effect my wittering about the quality of science journalism will have I might as well get on to the sports pages. I actually have some sympathy with the Gentlemen of the Press: writing about science is difficult – perhaps we should rejoice that there’s any national coverage. But there is a recurrent problem in the British press (see Not another ‘Great Cancer Breakthrough’!!!) that can easily be avoided. Just report evolving science stories as precisely and clearly as possible. They’re often sensational tales in their own right, so leave the sensationalism to the other pages and tell it as it is.

Rant over. Happy new year. Now, where’s the marmalade?


Tomasetti, C. and Vogelstein, B. (2015). Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions. Science 347, 78-81.

The Long and Short of Life

Many years ago (in 1928 to be precise) one of the cleverest of all scientists, J.B.S.Haldane, wrote an essay that became famous for explaining why there is a best size for every animal. In On Being the Right Size he pointed out that the giants who beset the hero of The Pilgrim’s Progress had a problem, unmentioned by John Bunyan, in being not only ten times the height of ordinary man but ten times as wide and ten times as thick. They were therefore one thousand times heavier and, as the human thigh-bone fractures under about ten times our normal weight, the giants would have broken a leg at every step.

Going in the other direction, so to speak, JBS noted that insects don’t have oxygen-carrying bloodstreams because what little oxygen their cells require can be absorbed by simple diffusion of air through their bodies. That’s because gases can diffuse easily through very small distances but are slow to spread further afield – meaning that regions of an insect more than a quarter of an inch from the air would always be short of oxygen. In consequence hardly any insects are much more than half an inch thick and we can relax, safe in the knowledge that the giant, man-eating spiders beloved of science fiction are indeed the stuff of fantasy.

Solving the problem

Larger animals have to take a radical approach to the problem of supplies – Bunyan’s giants needed a thousand times as much food and oxygen as ordinary man and their levels of waste production don’t bear thinking about – the point being that bigger creatures, even if not giants, required the evolution of oxygen-carrying bloodstreams and pumping systems to reach all their cells.

Ostrich racing

Ostrich racing

So successful has this ploy been that, from the emergence of the first fish and amphibians 500 million years ago, we have 64,000 vertebrate species today. Their range is truly astonishing – from tiny frogs less than half an inch long found in Papua New Guinea to the blue whale, averaging 110 tonnes and 24 metres in length and thought to be the largest animal of all time. The African bush elephant is the largest land animal (about 5 tonnes) and birds can get up to 150 kg if they give up flying. At that size ostriches are big enough to race each other whilst mounted by humans. It’s difficult to say whether the birds would rather be flying but if they fancy a bit of reverse evolution they’re going to need to lose 90% of their weight. The fact that only by limiting themselves to about 15 kg can birds manage to get airborne is one indicator of the energy required for flight. Three at this edge of evolution are the Andean condor, the wandering albatross and various bustards, each needing a wingspan of around three metres to generate the lift required to get something like 15 kg into the air.

The point about all these wonderful creatures is that they’ve evolved to survive in very specific niches where they live life on a knife-edge. Recall the Manchurian Great bustard who put on a bit of weight and seemingly lost the capacity to fly: his wing muscles couldn’t generate enough lift to get his 21 kg airborne. Or hummingbirds some of which can manage thousands of wing beats per minute but are constantly on the verge of starvation because they need to drink more than their own weight in nectar each day to generate the energy they use.

Top of the class

One of these marvellous vertebrate species is, of course, us – Homo sapiens – and we’ve been diligently carving out our niche for the past 200,000 years. Allegedly because of our larger brains, we’ve been more successful than any other species and managed to colonise pretty well every corner of all seven continents. That shows amazing adaptability for one species – a bunch of animals that are, to a first approximation, genetically identical. Ah! What a splendid word approximation is. We are indeed 99.9% identical in the genetic code – the sequence of bases in our DNA – that makes us. But we all know, of course, that we are not identical. We’re so not identical that everyone is almost instantly distinguishable from the other seven billion souls elbowing each other for living space on the planet. Two of our most obvious features are skin colour, variations in which have helped us make our homes in hot and cold climates alike, and height. The height range for adults is quite remarkable – from 2 ft (under 60 centimetres) to 8 ft 6 in (over 260 cms) – although exceptional height variation (20% deviation from the average) within a population is sometimes due to medical conditions. Mention of populations raises another familiar point: average heights vary significantly between human populations. Thus for males in the UK and the USA it is 5 ft 10 inches, in Vietnam and Bolivia it’s 5 ft 5, in Japan 5 ft 7 and those Scandinavian chappies clock in at 5 ft 11 inches. Our northern relatives are an example of the rule named after the nineteenth-century German biologist Carl Bergmann who noted that for closely related populations within a species those of larger size are found in colder environments, whilst the smaller guys stick to warmer regions.

What makes humans differ in height?

Nearly identical though we are, the answer has to lie in our genetic material or, more precisely, in the sequence of bases (A, C, G and T) that make up DNA. The difference lies in the detail: in the one in a thousand of the three thousand million bases that make up our genomes that differ between you and me (see Policing DNA). Known as common genetic variants, these inherited differences are what make us unique. The advent of high-powered DNA sequencing methods in the last 10 years means we can now screen large numbers of genomes to pin down the variants that associate with diseases and traits. Several such studies have focused on height and the most recent has sequenced DNA from more than 250,000 people and found nearly 700 variants that account for about 20% of the hereditability of height.

That says there’s still more to be discovered but the basic message is that a very large but finite number of variants, i.e. several thousand sequence differences, each by itself insignificant, contribute an overall effect – how tall you are – even though other factors, notably childhood nutrition, can play a role. Although the DNA variants are scattered throughout the genome, it seems likely that their effects are concentrated on specific pathways involved in cell proliferation and skeletal development.

Why are we interested in height?

In A Taxing Inheritance we tried to explain that, although cancers are mostly driven by the accumulation of mutations, i.e. changes in DNA that alter the activity of proteins and accumulate throughout life, about one in ten are given a kind of flying start when a mutation occurs before birth – i.e. they occur in an egg or sperm cell or just after fertilization. However, the number of such mutations that have been discovered accounts for only about a quarter of inherited breast cancers. The rest get their initial impetus from common genetic variants, in a way that closely parallels the regulation of height by a sub-set of variants. That is, differences at single positions within the genetic code – on their own insignificant – can, in combination, produce a significant effect. When the effect is an increased risk of cancer it may take many years to show itself whereas the impact on height becomes apparent early in development.

A good question

Having used height as an example of common genetic variants in action, one might ask the rather obvious question of whether there is any link between height and cancer and indeed several studies have shown that there is. In a large group of postmenopausal women (over 20,000) height was positively associated with risk of all cancers, every four inch change in height giving a 13 percent increase in risk. Another study concluded that tall men have slightly higher risk for aggressive prostate cancer.

Keep calm!

So there’s a link between being tall and cancer – but don’t panic! Like a good few other things in life, there’s nothing you can do about it. Bear in mind that, cancer apart, tallness, particularly in men, may be a boon and not just when you’re trying to watch footy. There’s evidence that shorter adults (below 160.5cm / 5ft 3in) are about 50% more likely to have a heart attack or die from heart disease than tall people.

Finally, this piece is to make the point that there isn’t a ‘height gene’ – just a large number of permutations in the variable bits of our genomes that determine how lofty we become. Similar permutations also determine most of the risk of inheriting breast cancer but we can’t do anything about that either. So the long and short of it is love the science – and love your size!


Wood, A.R. et al. (2014). Defining the role of common variation in the genomic and biological architecture of adult human height. Nature Genetics 46, 1173–1186.

Kabat, G.C. et al. (2013). Adult Stature and Risk of Cancer at Different Anatomic Sites in a Cohort of Postmenopausal Women. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev., 22, 1–11.

Zuccolo, L. et al. (2008). Height and Prostate Cancer Risk: A Large Nested Case-Control Study (ProtecT) and Meta-analysis. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev., 17, 2325–2336.

Cairns, B.J. and Green, J. (2013). Good News for “Alice”: Height and Sex Differences in Cancer Risk. J Natl Cancer Inst djt127 doi: 10.1093/jnci/djt127