Taking Aim at Cancer’s Heart


Cancer is a unique paradox. At one level it’s as easy as can be to describe: damage to DNA (aka mutations) drives cells to behave abnormally — to make more of themselves when they shouldn’t.

But we all know that cancer’s fiendishly complicated — at least at the level of fine detail. Over the last decade or so the avalanche of sequenced DNA has revealed that every cell in a tumour is different: compare one cell to its neighbour and you’ll find variations in the individual units (the bases A, C, G & T) that make up the chains of DNA.

It’s a nightmare: every cancer is different so we need an infinite number of treatments to control or cure each one. Time to give up and retire to the pub.

Drivers and passengers

Not quite. DNA sequencing has also revealed that, amongst all the genetic mayhem, some mutations are more important than others. The movers and shakers have been dubbed ‘drivers’: those that come along for the ride are ‘passengers’. The hangers-on are heavily in the majority but, even so, several hundred drivers (i.e. mutated genes that give rise to abnormal proteins) have been identified. As it needs a group of drivers to work together to make a cancer we still have the problem that the number of critical combinations that can arise is essentially infinite.

One way of reducing the scale of the problem has been to look at what ‘driver’ proteins do in cells and to target those acting at key points to push cell proliferation beyond the normal.

Playing games

Just recently Giulio CaravagnaAndrea Sottoriva and colleagues at the Institute of Cancer Research, London and the University of Edinburgh have come up with a different approach. The idea goes back to the 1950s when a clever chap from Kansas by the name of Arthur Samuel came up with a program for IBM’s first commercial computer so that it could play draughts (checkers as our American friends call it) in its spare time. The program defined the patterns that could be formed by the pieces on the chequerboard so that, given enough of these, IBM 701 could indicate the optimal moves. Samuel called this machine learning, a precursor of the idea of artificial intelligence.

Perhaps the most famous moment in this saga came in 1997 when a later IBM computer, Deep Blue, beat the then world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Unsurprisingly, Kasparov was a bit miffed and accused IBM of cheating — to wit, getting a human to tell the machine what to do. Let’s hope that in the end he came to terms with the fact that Deep Blue could crank through 200 million positions per second and, however many games Grandmasters have in their heads, they can’t compete with that.

The cancer team realized that the mutations driving the evolution of cancer cells emerge as patterns in the sequence of DNA as a cell moves towards becoming independent of normal controls. Think of each cancer as a family tree of mutations, the key question being which branch leads to the most potent combination.

To pick out these patterns they applied a machine-learning approach known as transfer learning to the DNA sequences from a large number of cancers. They called this ‘repeated evolution in cancer’ — REVOLVER — aimed at picking out mutation patterns at the heart of cancer that foreshadow future genetic changes and can be used to predict how they will evolve.

Identifying patterns of mutation common to different tumours.

Samples are taken from different regions of a patient’s tumour (represented by the coloured dots). Their DNA sequences will have multiple variations that can mask underlying patterns of driver mutations present in some subgroups. The five trees show mutations picked up in those patients. REVOLVER uses transfer learning to screen the sequence data from many patients and pull out evolutionary trajectories shared by subgroups. The dotted red lines highlight common patterns that are represented in the lower strip. From Caravagna et al. 2018.

REVOLVER was applied to sequences from lung, breast, kidney and bowel cancers but there’s no reason it shouldn’t work with other tumours. The big attraction is that if these mini-sequence mutation patterns can be associated generally with how a given tumour develops they should help to inform treatment options and predict survival.

We have in the past referred to the ways cancers evolve as ‘genetic roulette’ — so perhaps it’s appropriate if game-playing computer programs turn out to be useful in teasing out behavioural clues.


Caravagna, G. et al. (2018). Detecting repeated cancer evolution from multi-region tumor sequencing data. Nature Methods 15, 707–714.


Bigger is Better

“Nonsense!” most males would cry, quite logically, given that we spend much of our time trying to persuade the opposite sex that size doesn’t matter. But we want to have it both ways: in the macho world of rugby one of the oldest adages is that ‘a good big ’un will always beat a good little ’un’.  Beethoven doubtless had a view about size – albeit unrecorded by history – but after he’d written his Eroica symphony, perhaps the greatest revolutionary musical composition of all, his next offering in the genre was the magical Fourth – scored for the smallest orchestra used in any of his symphonies. And on the theme of small can be good, the British Medical Journal, no less, has just told us that if we cut the size of food portions and put ’em on smaller plates we’ll eat less and not get fat!

Is bigger better?

Is bigger better?

All of which suggests that whether bigger is better depends on what you have in mind. Needless to say, in these pages what we have in mind is ‘Does it apply to cancer?’ – that is, because cancers arise from the accumulation in cells of DNA damage (mutations), it would seem obvious that the bigger an animal (i.e. the more cells it has) and the longer it lives the more likely it will be to get cancer.

Obvious but, this being cancer, also wrong.

Peto’s Paradox

The first person to put his finger on this point was Sir Richard Peto, most famous for his work with Sir Richard Doll on cancer epidemiology. It was Doll, together with Austin Bradford Hill, who produced statistical proof (in the British Doctors’ Study published in 1956) that tobacco smoking increased the risk of lung cancer. Peto joined forces with Doll in 1971 and they went on to show that tobacco, infections and diet between them cause three quarters of all cancers.

Whenever this topic comes up I’m tempted to give a plug to the unfortunate Fritz Lickint – long forgotten German physician – who was actually the first to publish evidence that linked smoking and lung cancer and who coined the term ‘passive smoking’ – all some 30 years before the Doll study. Lickint’s findings were avidly taken up by the Nazi party as they promoted Draconian anti-smoking measures – presumably driven by the fact that their leader, Gröfaz (to use the derogatory acronym by which he became known in Germany as the war progressed – from Größter Feldherr aller ZeitenGreatest Field Commander of all Time) was a confirmed non-smoker. Despite his usefulness, Lickint’s political views didn’t fit the ideology of the times. He lost his job, was conscripted, survived the war as a medical orderly and only then was able to resume his life as a doctor – albeit never receiving the credit he deserved.

Returning to Richard Peto, it was he who in 1975 pointed out that across different species the incidence of cancer doesn’t appear to be linked to the number of cells in animal – i.e. its size.   He based his notion on the comparison of mice with men – we have about 1000 times the number of cells in a mouse and typically live 30 times as long. So we should be about a million times more likely to get cancer – but in fact cancer incidence is another of those things where we’re pretty similar to our little furry friends. That’s Peto’s Paradox.

It doesn’t seem to apply within members of the same species, a number of surveys having shown that cancer incidence increases with height both for men and women. The Women’s Health Initiative found that a four inch increase in height raised overall cancer risk by 13% although for some forms (kidney, rectum, thyroid and blood) the risk went up by about 25%. A later study found a similar association for ovarian cancer: women who are 5ft 6in tall have a 23% greater risk than those who only make it to 5 feet. A similar risk links ovarian cancer to obesity (i.e. a rise in body mass index from 20 (slim) to 30 (slightly overweight) puts the risk up by 23%). Statistically sound though these results appear to be, it’s worth nothing that, as my colleague Paul Pharoah has pointed out, these risk changes are small. For example, the ovarian cancer finding translates to a lifetime risk of about 16-in-a-1000 for shorter women going up to 20-in-a-1000 as they rise by 6 inches.

It’s true that there may be a contribution from larger animals having bigger cells (whale red blood cells are about twice as big as those of the mouse) that divide more slowly but at most that effect seems small and doesn’t fully account for the fact that across species the association of size and age with cancer breaks down: Peto’s Paradox rules – humans are much more likely to get cancer than whales.

What did we know?

Well, since Peto picked up the problem, almost nothing about underlying causes. The ‘almost’ has been confined to the very small end of the scale and we’ve already met the star of the show – the naked mole rat – a rather shy chap with a very long lifespan (up to 30 years) but who never seems to get cancer. In that piece we described the glimmerings of an explanation but, thanks to Xiao Tian and colleagues of the University of Rochester, New York we now know that these bald burrowers make an extraordinarily large version of a polysaccharide (a polymer of sugars). These long strings of glucose-like molecules (called hyaluronan) form part of the extracellular matrix and regulate cell proliferation and migration. They’re enormous molecules with tens of thousands of sugars linked together but the naked mole rat makes versions about four times larger than those of mice or humans – and it seems that these extra-large sugar strings restrict cell behaviour and block the development of tumours.

Going up!

Our ignorance has just been further lifted with two heavyweight studies, one from Lisa Abegglen, Joshua Schiffman and chums from the University of Utah School of Medicine who went to the zoo (San Diego Zoo, in fact) and looked at 36 different mammalian species, ranging in size from the striped grass mouse (weighing in at 50 grams) to the elephant – at 4,800 kilogram nearly 100,000 times larger. They found no relationship between body size and cancer incidence, a result that conforms to Peto’s paradox. Comparing cancer mortality rates it transpires that the figure for elephants is less than 5% compared with the human range of 11% to 25%.

107 final pic

Cancer incidence across species by body size and lifespan. A selection of 20 of the 36 species studied is shown. Sizes range from the striped grass mouse to the elephant. As the risk of cancer depends on both the number of cells in the body and the number of years over which those cells can accumulate mutations, cancer incidence is plotted as a function of size (i.e. mass in grams × life span, years: y axis: log scale). Each species is represented by at least 10 animals (from Abegglen et al., 2015).

It can be seen at a glance that cancer incidence is not associated with mass and life span.

The Tasmanian devil stands out as a remarkable example of susceptibility to cancer through its transmission by biting and licking.

How does Jumbo do it?

In a different approach to Peto’s Paradox, Michael Sulak, Vincent Lynch and colleagues at the University of Chicago looked mainly at elephants – more specifically they used DNA sequencing to get at how the largest extant land mammal manages to be super-resistant to cancer. In particular they focused on the tumor suppressor gene P53 (aka TP53) because its expression is exquisitely sensitive to DNA damage and when it’s switched on the actions of the P53 protein buy time for the cell to repair the damage or, failing that, bring about the death of the cell. That’s as good an anti-cancer defence as you can imagine – hence P53’s appellation as the ‘guardian of the genome’. It turned out that elephants have no fewer than 20 copies of P53 in their genome, whereas humans and other mammals have only one (i.e. one copy per set of (23) chromosomes). DNA from frozen mammoths had 14 copies of P53 but manatees and the small furry hyraxes, the elephant’s closest living relatives, like humans have only one.

The Utah group confirmed that elephants have, in addition to one normal P53 gene, 19 extra P53 genes (they’re actually retrogenes – one type of the pseudogenes that we met in the preceding post) that have been acquired as the animals have expanded in size during evolution. Several of these extra versions of P53 were shown to be switched on (transcribed) and translated into proteins.

Consistent with their extra P53 fire-power, elephant cells committed P53-dependent suicide (programmed cell death, aka apoptosis) more frequently than human cells when exposed to DNA-damaging radiation. This suggests that elephant cells are rather better than human cells when it comes to killing themselves to avoid the risk of uncontrolled growth arising from defective DNA.

More genes anyone?

Those keen on jumping on technological bandwagons may wish to sign up for an extra P53 gene or two, courtesy of genetic engineering, so that bingo! – they’ll be free of cancers. Aside from the elephant, they may be encouraged by ‘super P53’ mice that were genetically altered to express one extra version of P53 that indeed significantly protected from cancer when compared with normal mice – and did so without any evident ill-effects.

We do not wish to dampen your enthusiasm but would be in dereliction of our duty is we did not add a serious health warning. We now know a lot about P53 – for example, that the P53 gene encodes at least 15 different proteins (isoforms), some of which do indeed protect against cancer – but there are some that appear to act as tumour promoters. In other words we know enough about P53 to realize that we simply haven’t a clue. So we really would be playing with fire if we started tinkering with our P53 gene complement – and to emphasise practicalities, as Mel Greaves has put it, we just don’t know how well the elephants’ defences would stack up if they smoked.

Nevertheless, on the bright side, light is at long last beginning to be shed on Peto’s Paradox and who knows where that will eventually lead us. Meanwhile Richard Peto’s activities have evolved in a different direction and he now helps to run a Thai restaurant in Oxford, a cuisine known for small things that pack a prodigious punch. Bit like Beethoven’s Fourth you could say.



Peto, R. et al. (1975). Cancer and ageing in mice and men. British Journal of Cancer 32, 411-426.

Doll, R. and Peto, R. (1976). Mortality in relation to smoking: 20 years’ observations on male British doctors. Br Med J. 2(6051):1525–36.

Maciak, S. and Michalak, P. (2015). “Cell size and cancer: A new solution to Peto’s paradox?”. Evolutionary Applications 8: 2.

Doll, R. and Hill, A.B. (1954). “The mortality of doctors in relation to their smoking habits”. BMJ 328 (7455): 1529.

Doll, R. and Hill, A.B. (November 1956). “Lung cancer and other causes of death in relation to smoking; a second report on the mortality of British doctors”. British Medical Journal 2 (5001): 1071–1081.

Tian, X. et al. (2013). High-molecular-mass hyaluronan mediates the cancer resistance of the naked mole rat. Nature 499, 346-349.

Abegglen, L.M., Schiffman, J.D. et al. (2015). Potential Mechanisms for Cancer Resistance in Elephants and Comparative Cellular Response to DNA Damage in Humans. JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.13134.

Sulak, M., Lindsey Fong, Katelyn Mika, Sravanthi Chigurupati, Lisa Yon, Nigel P. Mongan, Richard D. Emes, Vincent J. Lynch, V.J. (2015). TP53 copy number expansion correlates with the evolution of increased body size and an enhanced DNA damage response in elephants. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/028522.

García-Cao, I. et al. (2002). ‘Super p53’ mice exhibit enhanced DNA damage response, are tumor resistant and age normally. EMBO Journal 21, 6225–6235.

A Small Helping For Australia

There’s an awful lot of very good things in Australia. Australians for a start. They’re just so kind, open, welcoming and accommodating it makes touring round this vast land a joy. Not merely do they cheerfully find a way to fix anything you want but they’re so polite that no one’s drawn attention to my resemblance to a scientific version of those reconstructed geriatric pop groups (viz the Rolling Stones or whatever) staggering round the place on their Zimmer frames. And they say wonderful things about my talks – that’s how charming they are!!

Greater bilgy

Greater bilby

Of course, you could say of Australia what someone once said of America and Britain: two nations divided by a common language. In the case of Oz you could also add ‘and by a ferociously competitive obsession with sport.’ So it’s wonderfully not home. Even Easter’s different in that here you get chocolate Easter bilbies rather than rabbits. Bilbies, by the way, are a sort of marsupial desert rat related to bandicoots. The lesser version died out in the 1950s so only the greater bilby is left (up to 20 inches long + tail half as long again) and you have to go to the arid deserts to find those. Not the choccy versions obviously: they don’t do too well in the deserts but they’re all over Melbourne:

Easter bilby

Easter bilby

shops full of ’em – and a lot bigger than the real thing. So, together with the egg avalanche, there’s no limit to the number of calories you can consume in celebrating the resurrection of Christ. Coupled with the glorious fact that there’s scarcely any mention of wretched soccer, all these novelties mean you’re never going to be lulled into thinking you’re still in dear old Blighty (or back in the old country as they delightfully put it here).

Hors D’Oeuvres

Even so there are some marked similarities to make you feel at home. One of the least striking is that most people are overweight. That is, I scarcely notice it, coming from what I regard as the global fat capital, i.e. Cambridge. The stats say that that’s not true, of course. The USA does these things better than the UK. Of course it does. But there’s not much in it. More than two-thirds of American adults are overweight and one person in three is obese. For the UK the prediction is that one in three will be obese by 2020. Currently in Australia 63% of the adult population is overweight, a figure that includes 28% who are obese.

The essential point is that there’s stuff all difference between those countries and the really critical thing is that the rates go on soaring. In the U.S. between 1980 and 2000 obesity rates doubled among adults and since 1980 the number of overweight adolescents has tripled. By 2025 one Australian child in three will be in the overweight/obese category.

Main course

The meat in this piece is provided by a report written by a bunch of Australian heavyweights – all Profs from Sydney or wherever. It has the droll title ‘No Time To Weight’ – do I need to explain that or shall I merely apologise for the syntax? ‘Oh c’mon!’ I hear our Aussie readers protest. ‘We’re going to hell in a handcart and you’re wittering about grammar. Typical b***** academic.’ Quite so. Priorities and all that. So the boffins’ idea is to wake everyone up to obesity and get policy-makers and parliamentarians to do something effective.No Time to Weight report

Why is this so important? Probably unnecessary to explain but obesity causes a variety of disorders (diabetes, heart disease, age-related degenerative disease, sleep apnea, gallstones, etc.) but in particular it’s linked to a range of cancers. Avid followers of this BbN blog will recall obesity cropping up umpteen times already in our cancer-themed story (Rasher Than I Thought?/Biting the bitter bullet/Wake up at the back/Twenty winks/Obesity and Cancer/Isn’t Science Wonderful? Obesity Talks to Cancer) and that’s because it significantly promotes cancers of the bowel, kidney, liver, esophagus, pancreas, endometrium, gallbladder, ovaries and breast. The estimate is that if we all had a body mass index (BMI) of less than 25 (the overweight threshold) there would be 12,000 fewer UK cancers per year. Mostly the evidence is of the smoking gun variety: overweight/obese people get these cancers a lot more often than lesser folk but in Obesity Talks to Cancer we looked at recent evidence of a molecular link between obesity and breast cancer.

Entrée (à la French cuisine not North American as in Main course)

Or, as you might say, a side dish of genetics. The obvious question about obesity is ‘What causes it?’ The answer is both complicated and simple. The complexity comes from the gradual accumulation of evidence that there is a substantial genetic (i.e. inherited) component. Many people will have heard of the hormone leptin, a critical regulator of energy balance and therefore of body weight. Mutations in the leptin gene that reduce the level of the hormone cause a constant desire to eat with the predictable consequence. But only a very small number of families have been found who carry leptin mutations and, although other mutations can drive carriers to overeating, they are even rarer.

However, aside from mutations, everyone’s DNA is subtly different (see Policing DNA) – about 1 in every 1000 of the units (bases) that make up our genetic code differs between individuals. All told the guess is that in  90% of the population this type of genetic variation can contribute to their being overweight/obese.

Things are made more complicated by the fact that diet can cause changes in the DNA of pregnant mothers (what’s called an epigenetic effect). In short, if a pregnant woman is obese, diabetic, or consumes too many calories, the obesity trait is passed to her offspring. This DNA ‘imprinting’ activates hormone signaling to increase hunger and inhibit satiety, thereby passing the problem on to the child.Preg Ob

So the genetics is quite complex. But what is simple is the fact that since 1985 the proportion of obese Australians has gone up by over 10-fold. That’s not due to genes misbehaving. As David Katz, the director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center puts it: ‘What has changed while obesity has gone from rare to pandemic is not within, but all around us. We are drowning in calories engineered to be irresistible.’


We might hope that everyone gets theirs but for obesity that’s not the way it works. The boffos’ report estimates that in 2008 obesity and all its works cost Australia a staggering $58.2 billion. Which means, of course, that every man, woman and child is paying a small fortune as the epidemic continues on its unchecked way. The report talks formulaically of promoting ‘Australia-wide action to harmonise and complement efforts in prevention’ and of supporting treatment. It’s also keen that Australia should follow the American Medical Association’s 2013 decision to class obesity as a disease, the idea being that this will help ‘reduce the stigma associated with obesity i.e. that it is not purely a lifestyle choice as a result of eating habits or levels of physical activity.’ Unfortunately this very p.c. stance ignores that fact that obesity is very largely the result of eating habits coupled to levels of physical activity. The best way to lose weight is to eat less, eat more wisely and exercise more.

In 2008 Australian government sources forked out $932.7 million over 9 years for preventative health initiatives, including obesity. This latest report represents another effort in this drive. Everyone should read it but, clear and well written though it is, it looks like a government report, runs to 34 pages and almost no one will give it the time of day.

The problem is that in Australia, as in the UK and the USA, all the well-intentioned propaganda simply isn’t working. As with tobacco, car seat belts and alcohol driving limits, the only solution is legislation, vastly unpopular though that always is – until most folk see sense. Start with the two most obvious targets: ban the sale of foods with excessive sugar levels (especially soft drinks) and make everyone have a BMI measurement at regular intervals, say biannually. Then fine anyone over 25 in successive tests who isn’t receiving some sort of medical treatment.

Amuse bouche

I know: I’ll never get in on that manifesto. But two cheers for ‘No Time To Weight’ and I trust the luminaries who complied it appreciate my puny helping hand from Cambridge. In the meantime, not anticipating any progress on a national front, I’m going to start my own campaign – it’s going to be a bit labour-intensive, one target at a time, but here goes!

The other evening I had dinner in a splendid Italian restaurant (The Yak in Melbourne: very good!). And delightful it would have been had I not shared with two local girls at the next table. One was your archetypal tall, slender, blonde, 25-ish Aussie female – the sort you almost feel could do with a square meal. Her companion of similar age was one of the dirigible models. (You’ll understand I wasn’t looking at them at all: I was with my life’s companion so no chance of that – but I do have very good peripheral vision. Comes from playing a lot of rugby). Each had one of the splendid pasta dishes on offer – but, bizarrely, they also ordered a very large bowl of chips. No prizes for guessing who ate all the fries. Miss Slim didn’t have one – not a single one! (OK, by now I was counting). Her outsize friend had the lot. How could she do that with a shining example of gastronomic sanity sitting opposite?

So c’mon Miss Aussie Airship: you know who you are. Let’s have no more of it. Obesity is not a personal ‘issue.’ Regardless of your calorie intake in one meal, your disgraceful behavior ruined a delightful dining experience for me, and quite possibly several other folk within eyeshot, upset the charming waitress and insulted The Yak’s excellent chef. Just think in future: there’s a place in life for chips – but it’s not with everything.


“Obesity: A National Epidemic and its Impact on Australia”