Delay Olympics for eight years, says biochemist

No he didn’t because that would just be silly wouldn’t it? What my colleague Chris Cooper from the University of Essex was reported as saying by The Independent was “Delay awarding London 2012 Olympic medals for eight years” because he thinks it will take that long for drug tests to separate who was playing the game (cricket, obviously) from the cheats – the word taken from Chris’s book Run Swim, Throw, Cheat.

The current front-runner in the game of Beat the Biochemists appears to be erythropoietin (EPO) – a natural hormone that makes us produce more red blood cells. That’s handy if you go in for endurance events (like surviving t.v. coverage of the Olympics). The Boffins went 1 – 0 up recently by coming up with a test that picks up EPO after it’s been injected.

You don’t know how lucky you are!

In the second leg the Scoundrels have hit back with fiendish cunning. A key factor that regulates whether we make EPO is oxygen availability. Lower oxygen means more red cells needed. But for that to happen there has to be a molecular messenger that can sense oxygen levels. There is: it’s a protein called hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF, of course) that under normal conditions gets broken down very quickly – by a process that needs oxygen. So when oxygen drops HIF lasts longer, makes more EPO and that makes more red cells. The crafty bit is finding another molecule that stabilizes HIF – in effect, enables it to survive even when there’s plenty of oxygen. HIF stabilizers are potentially important in treating some diseases and they’re just the ticket if you want to cheat in the 5,000 km bog snorkel.

There’s a bit of a concern because HIFs play an important role in helping cancers to grow so, adding that to the stress of wondering if you’re going to be nicked, it’s all going to be a bit of a strain for any ‘athletes’ who succumb to temptation. But there’s a time-honoured way of dealing with stress and this isn’t the moment to spoil the ship. A pack a day should do the trick.

Sorted. It’s all systems go for gold in the true Olympian spirit, Lucky Strikes in one pocket, HIF stabilizers in the other, morals in the changing room. The Boffins are scuppered, at least until they can find a way of detecting the invisible EPO driver, unless of course the fags give things away. What the score-line will be when we hear the merciful blast of the final whistle on 12th August is anyone’s guess – but for once I wouldn’t bet on the Boffins.

So who was the idiot responsible for the title of this piece? What could have possessed him? I have no idea but here’s a guess. What if he thought: let’s ban the Olympics for two rounds – and come 2020 everyone will say “Gee, what a great eight years we’ve had with none of the colossal waste of money on these staggeringly over-hyped, extraordinarily tedious and somewhat malodorous events. Let’s not bother any more.” Give that man a medal – without delay!

Reference

http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/olympics/news/delay-awarding-london-2012-olympic-medals-for-eight-years-says-biochemist-7917937.html

Isn’t Science Wonderful? Obesity Talks to Cancer

A couple of week’s ago we looked at how being obese can give cancer a helping hand. I thought this would be useful as most people know there is a link but perhaps not much more than that. The message had two simple parts: (1) When we make extra fat cells they change the metabolism of our bodies through chemical signals that wander around and, in passing, can also drive cancer growth, and (2) Some of the extra fat cells congregate around tumours and give them direct positive vibes (i.e. other, local chemical signals).

But you may have spotted that I didn’t actually say what these ‘signals’ are – for the very good reason that we know rather little about them. Step forward, right on cue, Ines Barone, Suzanne Fuqua and friends from the University of Calabria and Baylor College of Medicine, Houston with a wonderful paper that’s just been published. Wonderful because it’s got so much data I’m green with envy but also because, like most excellent science papers, the key message is simple: normal cells that have moved into the neighbourhood can indeed talk directly to tumour cells. And the messenger is … leptin!

That’s astonishing. Even those with only a smattering of knowledge about how we work will know that leptin plays a key role in regulating energy balance. It’s a protein – a hormone – that circulates in our blood at levels roughly proportional to body fat. Its job is to signal the ‘full’ state, i.e. to reduce appetite. Somewhat perversely, obesity usually causes abnormally high leptin levels but it doesn’t work very well because the body has become resistant to its signal – much as happens with insulin in type 2 diabetes.

The new results show that leptin, released from nearby cells, can bind to cancer cells and make them do two things: (1) Release a chemical that tells the adjacent cells to send out even more leptin, and (2) Make proteins that help the tumour cells grow and invade.

There are a few wrinkles to these results. The study was on breast cancer cells with a particular mutation (in a receptor for the hormone estrogen) and the ‘groupies’ providing the leptin turned out not to be fat cells but fibroblasts – part of the supportive framework of cells and tissues – so they’re ‘cancer-associated fibroblasts’ (CAFs). And when the CAFs release leptin it floods out and the tumour cells embrace it and make yet more receptors for leptin to bind to on their surface.

But these details matter less than the key point: for at least some types of cancer cell a hormone often made in excessive amounts in obesity can signal directly to tumour cells, telling them to grow and spread. This doesn’t mean that all breast tumours, yet alone all cancers, respond to leptin. What it does show is that a key factor in obesity can talk directly to some types of tumour cell. It’s another example of the painstaking way in which science usually proceeds and, assuming the results are reproducible, we have one more little bit of the jig-saw.

Reference

Barone, I., Catalano, S., Gelsomino, L. et al. (2012). Leptin Mediates Tumor−Stromal Interactions That Promote the Invasive Growth of Breast Cancer Cells. Cancer Research 72, 1416-1427.