Holiday Reading (4) – Can We Make Resistance Futile?

For those with a fondness for happy endings we should note that, despite the shortcomings of available drugs, the prospects for patients with a range of cancers have increased significantly over the latter part of the twentieth century. The overall 5-year survival rate for white Americans diagnosed between 1996 and 2004 with breast cancer was 91%; for prostate cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma the figures were 99% and 66%, respectively. These figures are part of a long-term trend of increasingly effective cancer treatment and there is no doubt that the advances in chemotherapy summarised in the earlier Holiday Readings are contributory factor. Nonetheless, the precise contribution of drug treatments remains controversial and impossible to disentangle quantitatively from other significant factors, notably earlier detection and improved surgical and radiotherapeutic methods.

Peering into the future there is no question that the gradual introduction of new anti-cancer drugs will continue and that those coming into use will be more specific and therefore less unpleasant to use. By developing combinations of drugs that can simultaneously poke the blancmange at several points it may be possible to confront tumor cells with a multiple challenge that even their nimbleness can’t evade, thereby eliminating the problem of drug resistance. Perhaps, therefore, in 20 years time we will have a drug cabinet sufficiently well stocked with cocktails that the major cancers can be tackled at key stages in their evolution, as defined by their genetic signature.

However, on the cautionary side we should note that in the limited number of studies thus far the effect of drug combinations on remission times has not been startling, being measured in months rather than years or decades. Having noted the durability of cancer cells we should not be surprised by this and the concern, of course, is that, however ingenious our efforts to develop drug cocktails, we may always come second to the adaptability of nature.

Equally perturbing is the fact that over 90% of cancer deaths arise from primary tumors spreading to other sites around the body. For this phenomenon, called metastasis, there are currently very few treatment options available and the magnitude of this problem is reflected in the fact that for metastatic breast cancer there has been little change in the survival rates over the past forty years.

Metastasis therefore remains one of the key cancer challenges. It’s over 125 years since the London physician Stepen Paget asked the critical question: ‘What is it that allows tumour cells to spread around the body?’ and it’s a daunting fact that only very recently have we made much progress towards an answer – and thus perhaps a way of controlling it. To the fore in this pursuit has been David Lyden and his colleagues at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. Their most astonishing finding is that cells in the primary tumour release messengers into the circulation and these, in effect, tag what will become landing points for wandering cells. Astonishing because it means that these sites are determined before any tumour cells actually set foot outside the confines of the primary tumour. Lyden has christened this ‘bookmarking’ cancer. That is a quite remarkable finding – but, as ever in science, it merely shifts the question to ‘OK but what’s the messenger?’

A ray of sunshine

It might appear somewhat churlish, especially after all that funding, to end on a note of defeatist gloom so let’s finish with my ray of sunshine that represents a radical approach to the problem. It relies on the fact that small numbers of cells break away from tumors and pass into the circulation. In addition, tumours can release both DNA and small sacs – like little cells – that contain DNA, proteins and RNAs (nucleic acids closely related to DNA). These small, secreted vesicles are called exosomes – a special form of messengers, communicating with other cells by fusing to them. By transferring molecules between cells, exosomes may play a role in mediating the immune response and they are now recognized as key regulators of tumour growth and metastasis.

Step forward Lyden and friends once more who have just shown in a mouse model of pancreatic cancer that exosomes found their way to the liver during the tumour’s earliest stages. Exosomes are taken up by some of the liver cells and this sets off a chain of cell-to-cell signals that eventually cause the accumulation of a kind of molecular glue (fibronectin). This is the critical ingredient in a microenvironment that attracts tumour cells and promotes their growth as a metastasis (secondary growth). So you can think of exosomes as a kind of environmental educator.

Exosome Fig

Exosomes released from primary tumours can mark a niche for metastasis.

The small sacs of goodies called exosomes are carried to the liver where they fuse with some cells, setting off a chain reaction that produces a sticky protein – fibronectin – a kind of glue for immune cells and tumour cells. (from Costa-Silva, B., Lyden, D. et al., Nature Cell Biology 17, 816–826, 2015).

The recent, remarkable technical advances that permit the isolation of exosomes also make it possible to fish out circulating tumour cells and tumour DNA from a mere teaspoonful of blood.

Circulating tumour cells have already been used to monitor patient responses to chemotherapy – when a treatment works the numbers drop: a gradual rise is the earliest indicator of the treatment failing. Even more exciting, this approach offers the possibility of detecting the presence of cancers years, perhaps decades, earlier than can presently be achieved. Coupling this to the capacity to sequence the DNA of the isolated cells to yield a genetic signature of the individual tumor can provide the basis for drug treatment. There are still considerable reservations attached to this approach but if it does drastically shift the stage at which we can detect tumors it may also transpire that their more naïve forms, in which fewer mutations have accumulated, are more susceptible to inhibitory drugs. If that were to be the case then even our currently rather bare, though slowly expanding, drug cabinet may turn out to be quite powerful.


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.

Scattering the Bad Seed

Cancers are very peculiar diseases. One of their fairly well-known oddities is that, by and large, it’s not the initial tumour that does the damage – rather that the vast majority of fatalities arise from its offshoots, secondary growths formed by cells escaping from the primary and spreading around the body, a diaspora called metastasis. That ‘vast majority’ is actually over 90% – so you might suppose most research effort would be focussed on how cells disseminate and what can be done to stop them in their tracks, whilst leaving the surgeons to deal with the primaries. But like many other things in life, logic plays a limited part in research strategy and to a great extent the boffins do what they fancy – or, to make it sound a bit more rigorous, what they feel is possible given the available tools. Which is perfectly reasonable: launching a project to build a radio would have been a bit perverse before Michael Faraday discovered electricity. In short, scientific research is all about practicalities – it’s what that great science communicator (and Nobel Prize winner) Peter Medawar called The Art of the Soluble.

Metastasis on the move

We recently recounted the emergence of the notion that cancers could spread around the body and how, by the end of the 19th century, this had led to the idea of ‘seed and soil’ – that cells cast off from primary tumours could drift around the circulation until they found somewhere congenial to drop anchor and set up a new home. That was in Keeping Cancer Catatonic and it was prompted by the fact that for rather more than 100 years metastasis seemed so difficult to get at, so impossible to model, there was virtually no progress and it is only now in the last few years that this critical cancer niche is once again on the move. The really exciting, and surprising, finding has been that, in mouse models, primary tumours dispatch chemical messengers into the blood stream long before any cells set sail. These protein news-bearers essentially tag a landing site within the circulatory system for the tumour cells to follow. And which sites are tagged depends on the type of tumour – consistent with the fact that human cancers show different preferences in metastatic targets.

A further twist is that even if tumour cells manage to follow this complicated guidance system and seed a new site, it’s not a disaster because their growth is suppressed by proteins released from nearby blood vessels. This presumably reflects the fact that tissues have systems to maintain the normal balance – to ensure that unusual things don’t happen – which means that everything is fine until that control is overwhelmed. When that happens other signals convert the dormant tumour into an expanding metastasis.

These very recent discoveries show that, at long last, our ignorance of how tumours spread is beginning to be chipped away and, because metastasis is the critical issue in cancer, this is a timely moment to do one of our crystal clear, simple summaries of what we know – which is relatively easy and will take much less time than if we reviewed our ignorance.


Bookmarking cancer: Primary tumours mark sites around the body to which they will spread (metastasize) by sending out chemical signals that create sticky ‘landing sites’ (red protein A) on target cells. Cells released from the bone marrow carry proteins B and C. B attaches to A and tumour cells ‘land’ on C. Cells may remain quiescent in a new site for years or decades, their growth suppressed by signals (e.g., TSP-1) released from nearby blood vessels. Only when appropriate activating signals dominate (e.g., TGF beta) is secondary tumour growth switched on (see Keeping Cancer Catatonic for more details).

So what do we know?

Tumours arise from the accumulation of (essentially) random mutations and these drive the expansion of a family of cells to the point where they make their presence felt. From that, if the bearer is unlucky, emerges a sub-set of cells with the wanderlust. Cells in which the mutational hand they have acquired confer the ability to escape from the family bosom, chew through surrounding tissue, burrow into nearby blood vessels and thus voyage to distant places around the body. Some of these adventurous fellows may find landing sites where they can stick and, in effect, reverse their escape routine by squeezing through the vessel wall and chomping their way to a new niche in which to set up home. This process is sometimes called ‘colonization’ and it’s a pretty vivid description, evoking images of brave chaps taking on the elements to find a new world in which to prosper. The upshot is a malignant tumour.

I’m sorry for pulling a sciency trick back there by inserting ‘essentially’ – in brackets to persuade you to skim over it as if it was a mild hallucination. We’ll come back to the rivetting explanation of why I’d feel uncomfortable about just saying ‘random mutations’ another day but for the moment just stick with the idea that changes in DNA make cancers.

Tumour cells are not very bright

This sequence is so convoluted that it sounds like the product of some devilish mastermind but in fact we know that the metastatic cell is incapable of thought because otherwise it would have stayed at home. Metastasis is a process so inefficient that it’s almost always fatal for the cell that tries it. Tumour cells that get into the circulation may be damaged in the rush-hour scrum that is cellular life in the bloodstream and be gobbled up by scavenger cells. Even if they do finally squeeze through a space in the wall – feeling they’ve made it – they may have suffered so much stress they’re just not up to producing a family in a new environment that mayn’t be entirely welcoming. So even after reaching a new home they may not survive any longer or just manage to form a small cluster of cells that hang on as a ‘dormant’ tumour – an indolent little outpost that represents no threat to the carrier, even though it may persist for decades. So, despite metastasis being the most life-threatening facet of cancer, the odds are strongly weighted against escaping tumour cells: even after they’ve made it into the circulation, only about one in every ten thousand makes it to a compatible site where it forms an embryonic colony.

How does it kick off?

Given that tumours are products of evolution – albeit on the hugely accelerated time-scale of an individual lifetime rather than the geological frame within which new species emerge – you might suppose that metastases are merely a potent end-product. A tumour cell continues to pick up mutations until eventually it has the required toolkit to burrow and squeeze, float and drift, touch down  on sticky patches, squeeze and burrow again and eventually thrive in a new home. In the best traditions of cancer, however, it turns out not to be like that – at least, as far as is known, no set of mutations defines cells as having acquired the tools of the spreading trade. In short, there’s no ‘genetic signature’ that uniquely marks a metastatic cell. Nevertheless, they are different: only a fraction of primary tumour cells acquire the ability to spread – so if it isn’t simply by picking up an escape kit of changes in DNA, how do they do it?

Making an escape kit

One of the things that does mark metastatic cells is a change in the genes expressed compared to their relatives in the rest of the tumour. That is they alter the pattern of proteins that they make. This switch reorganises the cell’s shape and helps it to move and, most notably, includes enzymes released into the environment that cut a path for the cell to invade its local surroundings en route to the circulation.  As you might guess, this switch in protein production appears to be reversed once a cell has found a new niche. But if this transition into an invasive (i.e. malignant) cell isn’t driven by specific mutations, how does it come about?

The answer seems to lie in a subtle fine-tuning of cell behaviour, rather than dramatic changes caused by mutations in DNA. In other words, cells emerge from the morass of mutations within a tumour with critical signal systems that are just that little bit more active than those of their companions. It’s less a tall poppy syndrome than the odd blade of grass that’s missed the mower and can see a wider world. If this still seems a bit far-fetched, recall that every cell is unique: however identical two cells may be, there will be tiny differences in the signals that control their level of response.  The minuscule edge that can give one cell over another is enough. Given time, it will reproduce to make a clone with the gymnastic ability and stamina required to embark on the fraught experience of founding a metastatic colony.

Spreading variety

One of the fascinating things about cancer is that there seems to be no absolute rules. For every generalization there’s a renegade – a piece of molecular or cellular jiggery-pokery that does it in a different way, often in a breath-taking example of Nature’s flexibility. So it is with metastasis in that, as we noted, different cancers show widely variable behaviour.  Some major types have usually spread by the time they are detected (lung, pancreatic) whereas generally breast and prostate tumours have not. Some forms of brain tumour usually invade locally and are rarely found at distant sites whilst others often metastasize. Sometimes secondary growths are found when the primary source can’t de detected at all – so they’re ‘cancers of unknown primary’ and they’re not uncommon, coming in the top 10% of diagnoses.

Equally bemusing is the range of favoured targets for dissemination. Prostate cancer cells commonly home in on bone whereas bone and muscle tumours often spread to the lungs. Others, however, are much more promiscuous and go for multiple sites (e.g., triple-negative breast cancer, skin melanoma and tumours originating in the lung and kidney). We have little idea what’s behind this variability though it may be a combination of different circulation patterns, capacity to slip through vessel walls and how well-equipped the cell is to survive in new terrain.

Making friends with the neighbours

In Cooperative Cancer Groupies we talked about one of the most recent evolutions in cancer thinking – the notion that tumours are not just made up of clumps of abnormal cells but that their locale becomes flooded with a variety of normal cells as the host mounts first an inflammatory response and then attempts to kill off the intruder through its immune system. When this defence fails and the tumour begins to develop it has succeeded in corrupting the groupies in the microenvironment so that now they send out signals that actively promote tumour growth. This type of local support is similarly critical in determining whether metastases take root, so to speak. Moreover, variation in the precise signals from normal cells between different tissues contributes to target preference for malignant cells.

Not like you see on t.v.

In the currently popular Danish political drama television series called Borgen there’s a scene in which a tabloid newspaper editor is offered a piece by a reputable journalist about the European Union that he rejects. “Don’t try to give me a story about the EU: it’s not sexy and it’s too complicated for our readers to understand.” We will have no truck with such patronising here, despite the fact that nobody ever accused metastasis of being sexy. Moreover, as no one ‘understands’ it, we take the view that we’re all in this together and, because it’s infinitely more important and fascinating than political stories, we have belaboured you with the foregoing! Just to make sure that the little we do know is clear, let us summarise in nine (more or less) one-liners:

  1. Tumor cells signal to potential secondary sites.
  2. They escape, burrow, circulate, lodge at landing sites and colonize.
  3. They change the pattern of proteins they make to permit escape.
  4. They change the pattern again when they colonize.
  5. No genetic signature (set of mutations) is known that indicates capacity to metastasize.
  6. The process is very inefficient – i.e. most tumor cells never form a colony.
  7. Despite the low success rate, metastasis is responsible for >90% of cancer deaths.
  8. Once colonization starts at secondary site, tumor cells recruit help from adjacent normal cells (as they do in primary tumors).
  9. Normal cells can also colonize – that is, non-tumour cells injected into the bloodstream of mice have been shown to form colonies in the lungs. 


This beautiful picture taken by Bettina Weigelin and Peter Friedl, UMC St Radboud Nijmegen, shows the remarkable plasticity of cells. The tumour cells (green) are invading normal mouse skin (orange) that also contains nerve fibers (blue) and collagen (grey). Cells may invade singly or as clusters. Their flexibility in wiggling through skin is similar to what happens when they cross the walls of blood vessels.

Perhaps the most surprising item is the one we slipped in at Number 9 – that metastasis, or at least the capacity to colonize secondary sites, is not an exclusively property of some tumour cells but that normal cells can do it too. For sure we assume tumour cells are better at it – not least because they can send out advance signals giving them a better chance of a happy landing. And, of course, once a colony has been founded, tumour cells already carry mutated genes that can act as ‘drivers’ for further expansion of the secondary growth. Even so, the fact that normal cells can pass from the blood to a niche in lung tissue shows that colony foundation is not a unique property of tumour cells. Lung colonization by normal cells may be down to mechanics. Your lungs, which of course fit inside your chest, resemble a sponge – a mass of fine tubes linked to 300 million air sacs (called alveoli): spread them out and they’d cover a tennis court. The alveoli are surrounded by the most intricate network of blood vessels (called capillaries) and it is here that oxygen is transferred to blood. The fine capillaries may simply be a very effective trap – cells may become stuck without the requirement for any specific markers.

And the outlook?

We have therefore a dim picture of what is involved in metastasis but the presumption is that it may rapidly brighten. It’s not hard to see why metastasis is the culprit in the overwhelming majority of cancer deaths. By spreading to new sites cancers increase enormously the difficulty of detecting them, they become almost impossible to treat by surgery and the only strategy remaining is to use drugs (chemotherapy). Currently there are hardly any treatment options available for tumours that have metastasized and even when drugs do work their effects are short lived and tumours recur. The unveiling of every new facet of the amazing puzzle that is metastasis refines our thinking about the problem and carries with it the possibility of new targets and strategies for its blockade. The end is nowhere in sight but we are, at long last, making a significant beginning.


Ghajar, C.M. et al. (2013). The perivascular niche regulates breast tumour dormancy. Nature Cell Biology 15, 807–817.

Brabletz, T., Lyden, D., Steeg, P.S. and Werb, Z. (2013). Roadblocks to translational advances on metastasis research. Nature Medicine 19, 1104-1109.