What’s New in Breast Cancers?

 

One of the best-known things about cancer is that it’s good to catch it early. By that, of course, we don’t mean that you should make an effort to get cancer when you’re young but that, if it does arise it’s a good idea to find out before the initial growth has spread to other places in the body. That’s because surgery and drug treatments are very effective at dealing with ‘primary’ tumours — so much so that over 90% of cancer deaths are caused by cells wandering away from primaries to form secondary growths — a process called metastasis — that are very difficult to treat.

The importance of tumour spreading is shown by the figures for 5-year survival rates. Overall in the USA it’s 90% but this figure falls to below 30% for cancers that have metastasized (e.g., to the lungs, liver or bones). For breast cancer the 5-year survival rate is 99% if it is first detected only in the breast (most cases (62%) are diagnosed at this stage). If it’s spread to blood and lymph vessels in the breast the 5-year survival rate is 85%, dropping to 27% if it’s reached distant parts of the body.

What’s the cause of the problem?

The other thing most people know about cancers is that they’re caused by damage to our genetic material — DNA — that is, by mutations. This raises the obvious notion that secondary tumours might be difficult to deal with because they have accumulated extra mutations compared with those in primaries. And indeed, there have been several studies pointing to just that.

Very recently, however, François Bertucci, Fabrice André and their colleagues in various institutes in France, Switzerland and the USA have mapped in detail the critical alterations in DNA that accumulate as different types of breast cancers develop from early tumours to late, metastatic forms. As is the way these days, their paper contains masses of data but the easiest form of the message comes in the shape of ‘violin plots’. These show the spread of results  — in this case the number of mutations per length of DNA.

Metastatic tumours have a bigger mutational load than early tumours. These plots are for one type of breast tumour (HR+/HER2−) and show results for 381 metastases and 501 early tumours. Red dots = median values: these are the “middle” values rather than an average (or mean) and they show a clear upwards shift in burden as early tumours evolve into metastases. From Bertucci et al., 2019.

The violin plots above are for one subtype of breast cancer (HR+/HER2−). Recall that breast tumours are often defined by which of three types of protein can be detected on the surface of the cells: these are ‘receptors’ that have binding sites for the hormones estrogen and progesterone and for human epidermal growth factor. Hence they are denoted as hormone receptors (HRs) and (human) epidermal growth factor receptor-2 (HER2). Thus tumours may have HRs and HER2 (HR+, HER2+) or various receptors may be undetectable. Triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) is an absence of receptors for both estrogen and progesterone and for HER2.

The plots clearly show an increase in mutation load with progression from early to metastatic tumours (on average from 2.4 to 3.8 mutations per megabase of DNA). Looking at individual genes, nine ‘drivers’ emerged that were more frequently mutated in HR+/HER2− metastatic breast cancers (we described ‘driver’ and ‘passenger’ mutations in Taking Aim at Cancer’s Heart).

So what?

For now these findings give us just a little more insight into what goes on at the molecular level to turn a primary into a metastatic tumour. The fact that some of the acquired driver mutations are associated with poor patient survival offers some guidance as to treatment options.

Don’t get carried away

It’s a familiar story in this field: another small advance in piecing together the jigsaw that is cancer. It doesn’t offer any immediate advance in treatment — mainly because most of the nine ‘driver’ genes identified are tumour suppressors — i.e. they normally act as brakes on cell growth. Mutations knock out that activity and at the moment there is no therapeutic method for reversing such mutations. (The other main class of cancer promoters is ‘oncogenes‘ in which mutations cause hyper-activity).

But such steps are important. The young slave girl in Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave us the phrase “grew like Topsy” — meaning unplanned growth. Cancer growth is indeed unplanned and a bit like Topsy but it’s driven by molecular forces and only through untangling these can we begin to design therapies in a rational way.

Reference

Bertucci, F. et al. (2019). Genomic characterization of metastatic breast cancers. Nature 569, 560–564.

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?’

References

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.

 

Where’s that Tumour?

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

Prepare to be boggled

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

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

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

Fig. 1. 114

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

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

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

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

What’s new?

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

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

A big turn-off: kinase inhibitors

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

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

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

Fig. 2. 114

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

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