One More Small Step


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next small step

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

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

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

Is it real?

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

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

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

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

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

Augustus De Morgan looking down.

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


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


Lethal ZIP codes

In Keeping Cancer Catatonic we retailed how, over 125 years ago, the London physician Stephen Paget came up with his ‘seed and soil’ idea to explain why it was that when cancers spread to distant sites around the body by getting into the circulation they didn’t simply stick to the first tissue they came across. Paget had spotted that cancers tend to have preferred sites for spreading: tumours of the eye tend to travel to the liver, rather than the much handier brain, and breast cancers, Paget’s speciality, commonly spread to the liver but also to the lungs, kidneys, spleen and bone. So his idea was that certain distant secondary sites are somehow made more receptive to tumor growth, just as soil can be prepared for seeds to sprout.

So the key question became ‘how?’ and it’s hung in the cancer air for well over a century during which we’ve made very little progress towards an answer – and it is crucial because the business of tumour cells spreading (metastasizing) causes most cancer deaths (over 90%).

But, at long last, things have started to move, largely due to the efforts of David Lyden and his colleagues at Weill Cornell Medical College. Their first astonishing contribution was to show that cells in primary tumours release messengers into the circulation and these, in effect, tag what will become landing points for wandering tumour cells – i.e., the target sites are determined before any tumour cells actually set foot outside the confines of the primary tumour.

After that seismic revelation the story advanced a step further (in Scattering the Bad Seed) with some molecular detail of how the sites are marked – an effect Lyden has christened ‘Bookmarking cancer’ – and how when tumour cells do settle in their new niche they may be kept dormant for many years before starting to expand.

Carrying the flag

The next chapter in the story, as retailed in Holiday Reading (4) – Can We Make Resistance Futile?, revealed that the message is carried by small sacs – like little cells – called exosomes that are released from tumour cells. These float around the circulation until they find their target site, whereupon they plant the flag by setting off a chain reaction that produces a sticky protein – fibronectin – a kind of glue for immune cells and tumour cells.

That is all truly amazing stuff but, as we noted in Holiday Reading (4) – Can We Make Resistance Futile?, a recurring theme in science is that one answer merely poses the next question – in this case ‘what’s the messenger?’

As in all the best thrillers, the authors have kept us in suspense to the last, helped presumably by their not knowing the answer. But in this week’s Nature (Oct. 28, 2015) comes the denoument to this whodunit.

Mister postman look and see …

Many moons ago an outfit called the Marvelettes had a No. 1 hit with Please Mr. Postman and somewhat later the Fab Four did a re-hash that met with equal success. Perhaps we should have asked them how nature would go about directing little packages around the body. John, Ringo and the lads would, with their earthy, Liverpudlian logic, have pointed out the triviality of the problem of exosome addressing. ‘It’s not like you’re sending stuff all over the world, is it? You’ve only got a few targets – the major organs of the body. So a dead simple code will do. You know your messengers are proteins – ’coz they do everything – OK? So, pick a protein that comes in two bits with a few variants of each: mix and match and there’s yer postcodes. Now … what was that ditty about yellow subsurface vessels …’

And so it came to pass …

And the messenger is …

A family of proteins called integrins whose job is to span the membranes of cells, thereby promoting cell-cell interactions. They are indeed made of two different chains stuck together (called α (alpha) and β (beta)) and the upshot is that our cells can make about 24 unique integrins – more than enough to form a coded address system to direct tumour cells around the body. Well done lads!

What Ayuko Hoshino, David Lyden and their many collaborators did was to tag exosomes released from various types of cancer cell with a fluorescent dye and inject them into mice. The fluorescent label enabled them to track the exosomes and it turned out that, for a variety of cancer cells (breast, pancreatic, colorectal, lung, melanoma and pediatric) the exosomes travelled to the organs associated with metastasis (e.g., breast cancer exosomes stuck in the lungs, pancreatic cancer exosomes in the liver, etc). In other words exosome spread mimicked the pattern of the tumour from which they were derived. Once they had landed the exosomes set about reprogramming the organ sites to make a fertile microenvironment capable of supporting tumor cell growth in a new colony.

When they looked at the exosome proteins they found a particular member of the integrin family flagged each organ-specific site. Thus α6β4 promotes lung metastasis, αvβ5 homes in on the liver, αvβ3 on the brain, etc.

MapFinding a home

To spread around the body (metastasise) primary tumours first release small sacs (exosomes) carrying protein tags (integrins). Moving through the circulatory system the integrin tags home in to specific addresses found on different organs. The effect of exosomes sticking to target sites is to prepare the ground for cells released by the tumour to adhere and colonise.

Down the tube

You could think of primary tumours as being a bit like us when we move to a new city and try to find a des. res. in a place you don’t know. We could just ramble round the subway system until something catches our eye but that might take for ever. Much more efficient is to ask someone with local knowledge where would be good spots to target. For disseminating tumours their exosomes are the scouts who do the foot-slogging: the protein signatures on the surface of these small, tumour-secreted packages home in on postcodes that define a desirable locale for metastatic spread.

Shooting the messenger

An obvious question is ‘If exosomes are critical in defining metastatic sites, can you block their action – and what happens when you do?’ In preliminary experiments Hoshino & Co showed that either knockdown of specific integrins or blocking the capacity of these proteins to stick to their targets (with a specific antibody or short synthetic peptides) significantly reduced exosome adhesion, thereby blocking pre-metastatic niche formation and liver metastasis.

A new beginning?

We described these fabulous results as the denouement but, of course, it isn’t. As Mr. Churchill remarked in a somewhat different context: ‘Now this is not the end.’ It is rather a step to answering an old question but it’s incredibly exciting. If screening for exosomes leads to the detection of cancer not just years but perhaps decades earlier than can be achieved by present methods and if blocking their action can keep metastasis at bay, then the field of cancer will be utterly transformed.


Hoshino, A. et al. (2015). Tumour exosome integrins determine organotropic metastasis. Nature doi:10.1038/nature15756.

Ruoslahti, E. (1996). RGD and Other Recognition Sequences for Integrins. Annual Review of Cell and Developmental Biology 12, 697-715.