Sticky Cancer Genes


In the previous blog I talked about Breath Biopsy — a new method that aims to detect cancers from breath samples. I noted that it could end up complementing liquid biopsies — samples of tumour cell DNA pulled out of a teaspoon of blood — both being, as near as makes no difference, non-invasive tests. Just to show that there’s no limit to the ingenuity of scientists, yet another approach to the detection problem has just been published — this from Matt Trau and his wonderful team at The University of Queensland.

This new method, like the liquid biopsy, detects DNA but, rather than the sequence of bases, it identifies an epigenetic profile — that is, the pattern of chemical tags (methyl groups) attached to bases. As we noted in Cancer GPS? cancer cells often have abnormal DNA methylation patterns — excess methylation (hypermethylation) in some regions, reduced methylation in others. Methylation acts as a kind of ‘fine tuner’, regulating whether genes are switched on or off. In the methylation landscape of cancer cells there is an overall loss of methylation but there’s an increase in regions that regulate the expression of critical genes. This shows up as clusters of methylated cytosine bases.

Rather helpfully, a little while ago in Desperately SEEKing … we talked about epigenetics and included a scheme showing how differences in methylation clusters can identify normal cells and a variety of cancers and how these were analysed in the computer program CancerLocator.

The Trau paper has an even better scheme showing how the patterns of DNA decoration differ between normal and cancer cells and how this ‘methylscape’ (methylation landscape) affects the physical behaviour of DNA.

How epigenetic changes affect DNA. Scheme shows methylation (left: addition of a methyl group to a cytosine base in DNA) in the process of epigenetic reprogramming in cancer cells. This change in the methylation landscape affects the solubility of DNA and its adsorption by gold (from Sina et al. 2018).

Critically, normal and cancer epigenomes differ in stickiness — affinity — for metal surfaces, in particular for gold. In a clever ploy this work incorporated a colour change as indicator. We don’t need to bother with the details — and the result is easy to describe. DNA, extracted from a small blood sample, is added to water containing tiny gold nanoparticles. The colour indicator makes the water pink. If the DNA is from cancer cells the water retains its original colour. If it’s normal DNA from healthy cells the different binding properties turns the water blue.

By this test the Brisbane group have been able to identify DNA from breast, prostate and colorectal cancers as well as from lymphomas.

So effective is this method that it can detect circulating free DNA from tumour cells within 10 minutes of taking a blood sample.

The aim of the game — and the reason why so much effort is being expended — is to detect cancers much earlier than current methods (mammography, etc.) can manage. The idea is that if we can do this not weeks or months but perhaps years earlier, at that stage cancers may be much more susceptible to drug treatments. Trau’s paper notes that their test is sensitive enough to detect very low levels of cancer DNA — not the same thing as early detection but suggestive none the less.

So there are now at least three non-invasive tests for cancer: liquid biopsy, Breath Biopsy and the Queensland group’s Methylscape, and in the context of epigenetics we should also bear in mind the CancerLocator analysis programme.

Matt Trau acknowledges, speaking of Methylscape, that “We certainly don’t know yet whether it’s the holy grail for all cancer diagnostics, but it looks really interesting as an incredibly simple universal marker for cancer …” We know already that liquid biopsies can give useful information about patient response to treatment but it will be a while before we can determine how far back any of these methods can push the detection frontier. In the meantime it would be surprising if these tests were not being applied to age-grouped sets of normal individuals — because one would expect the frequency of cancer indication to be lower in younger people.

From a scientific point of view it would be exciting if a significant proportion of ‘positives’ was detected in, say, 20 to 30 year olds. Such a result would, however, raise some very tricky questions in terms of what, at the moment, should be done with those findings.


Abu Ali Ibn Sina, Laura G. Carrascosa, Ziyu Liang, Yadveer S. Grewal, Andri Wardiana, Muhammad J. A. Shiddiky, Robert A. Gardiner, Hemamali Samaratunga, Maher K. Gandhi, Rodney J. Scott, Darren Korbie & Matt Trau (2018). Epigenetically reprogrammed methylation landscape drives the DNA self-assembly and serves as a universal cancer biomarker. Nature Communications 9, Article number: 4915.


Born On Wings


Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin is a name that will perhaps be familiar only to musical folk of a fairly dedicated kind. Which is a shame because he wrote some wonderful music particularly in his symphonies, in the magical portrait of the steppes of Central Asia and in his opera Prince Igor, albeit not finishing the latter. But Borodin was more than just a gifted composer for he started life as an illegitimate child, qualified as a doctor in Saint Petersburg and became a Professor of Chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy in that city. He carried out some very significant chemical research – he’s even got a reaction named after him – whilst, as a hobby, becoming a sufficiently outstanding composer to be one of The Mighty Handful. Along the way he founded the School of Medicine for Women in Saint Petersburg, the first Russian medical institute for women.

Advanced chemistry

With that background we can be sure that Borodin would have been thrilled to note the recent headlines about the trial of a breathalyser test for cancers. It’s being run by my colleague Rebecca Fitzgerald of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre (and of tea bag fame: see Open Wide for Pasty’s Throat), initially for people suspected to have oesophageal or stomach cancers but in time to be extended to other cancers. What would have excited the chemist in Borodin is that the test collects airborne molecules from the breath and uses the most advanced modern chemistry to analyse them (the details don’t matter but, for the record, the critical method is called Field Asymmetric Ion Mobility Spectroscopy (FAIMS) which distinguishes molecules by how fast they move when driven through a gas by an electric field).

What’s new?

At first pass it may sound fanciful to think of detecting cancer on the breath but perhaps it shouldn’t. After all, we’re familiar with breathalysers that detect alcohol levels and, more generally, we all know that ‘bad breath’ isn’t a good sign. For example, the smell of acetone on the breath can arise from type I diabetes, when the body increases its use of fat due to low insulin levels. My old chemistry teacher was known throughout the school as ‘Fruity’ — the word he used with relish to describe the scent of ketones (acetone is the smallest member of the ketones).

The general point is that molecules released from cells can find their way into the lungs and emerge in the breath and now they can be identifed to find signatures indicative of disease.

The detection of breath-born chemicals can inform diagnosis and treatment of disease. From ebook “Breath Biopsy: The Complete Guide” by Owlstone Medical Ltd.

Pioneering this approach is a company called Owlstone Medical whose Breath Biopsy analytical platform carries out the spectroscopy of airborne molecules (volatile organic compounds). The idea is that someone exhales into a mask and chemicals born on the breath are collected by a cartridge for subsequent analysis. More than 1000 different compounds can be identified by this state-of-the-art technology and for cancer detection these may include substances released by tumour cells and also those emanating from host cells that have been drawn into the tumour microenvironment.

Followers of this blog will know of my enthusiasm for cancer early detection, in particular the liquid biopsy method that permits the isolation of tumour DNA from small blood samples. The breathalyzer system is a different approach to the same problem — and it may be that, in the end, both will have useful roles to play. I should add that my publicizing Owlstone Medical is entirely on account of the apparent potential of their system for cancer screening. Although the company is based in Cambridge, I have no connection with them. I rather wish I had.

If Borodin was here to comment he might wryly observe that in his opera the breaths launched by the enslaved captives when they start to sing ‘Born on wings …’ carried only grief and sorrow but with Breath Biopsy it may be that bad news enwraps good — if it carries a warning of cancers or other diseases sufficiently early that they may be stopped in their tracks.

Desperately SEEKing …

These days few can be unaware that cancers kill one in three of us. That proportion has crept up over time as life expectancy has gone up — cancers are (mainly) diseases of old age. Even so, they plagued the ancients as Egyptian scrolls dating from 1600 BC record and as their mummified bodies bear witness. Understandably, progress in getting to grips with the problem was slow. It took until the nineteenth century before two great French physicians, Laënnec and Récamier, first noted that tumours could spread from their initial site to other locations where they could grow as ‘secondary tumours’. Munich-born Karl Thiersch showed that ‘metastasis’ occurs when cells leave the primary site and spread through the body. That was in 1865 and it gradually led to the realisation that metastasis was a key problem: many tumours could be dealt with by surgery, if carried out before secondary tumours had formed, but once metastasis had taken hold … With this in mind the gifted American surgeon William Halsted applied ever more radical surgery to breast cancers, removing tissues to which these tumors often spread, with the aim of preventing secondary tumour formation.

Early warning systems

Photos of Halsted’s handiwork are too grim to show here but his logic could not be faulted for metastasis remains the cause of over 90% of cancer deaths. Mercifully, rather than removing more and more tissue targets, the emphasis today has shifted to tumour detection. How can they be picked up before they have spread?

To this end several methods have become familiar — X-rays, PET (positron emission tomography, etc) — but, useful though these are in clinical practice, they suffer from being unable to ‘see’ small tumours (less that 1 cm diameter). For early detection something completely different was needed.

The New World

The first full sequence of human DNA (the genome), completed in 2003, opened a new era and, arguably, the burgeoning science of genomics has already made a greater impact on biology than any previous advance.

Tumour detection is a brilliant example for it is now possible to pull tumour cell DNA out of the gemisch that is circulating blood. All you need is a teaspoonful (of blood) and the right bit of kit (silicon chip technology and short bits of artificial DNA as bait) to get your hands on the DNA which can then be sequenced. We described how this ‘liquid biopsy’ can be used to track responses to cancer treatment in a quick and non–invasive way in Seeing the Invisible: A Cancer Early Warning System?

If it’s brilliant why the question mark?

Two problems really: (1) Some cancers have proved difficult to pick up in liquid biopsies and (2) the method didn’t tell you where the tumour was (i.e. in which tissue).

The next step, in 2017, added epigenetics to DNA sequencing. That is, a programme called CancerLocator profiled the chemical tags (methyl groups) attached to DNA in a set of lung, liver and breast tumours. In Cancer GPS? we described this as a big step forward, not least because it detected 80% of early stage cancers.

There’s still a pesky question mark?

Rather than shrugging their shoulders and saying “that’s science for you” Joshua Cohen and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and a host of others rolled their sleeves up and made another step forward in the shape of CancerSEEK, described in the January 18 (2018) issue of Science.

This added two new tweaks: (1) for DNA sequencing they selected a panel of 16 known ‘cancer genes’ and screened just those for specific mutations and (2) they included proteins in their analysis by measuring the circulating levels of 10 established biomarkers. Of these perhaps the most familiar is cancer antigen 125 (CA-125) which has been used as an indicator of ovarian cancer.

Sensitivity of CancerSEEK by tumour type. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals (from Cohen et al., 2018).

The figure shows a detection rate of about 70% for eight cancer types in 1005 patients whose tumours had not spread. CancerSEEK performed best for five types (ovary, liver, stomach, pancreas and esophagus) that are difficult to detect early.

Is there still a question mark?

Of course there is! It’s biology — and cancer biology at that. The sensitivity is quite low for some of the cancers and it remains to be seen how high the false positive rate goes in larger populations than 1005 of this preliminary study.

So let’s leave the last cautious word to my colleague Paul Pharoah: “I do not think that this new test has really moved the field of early detection very far forward … It remains a promising, but yet to be proven technology.”


D. Cohen et al. (2018). Detection and localization of surgically resectable cancers with a multi-analyte blood test. Science 10.1126/science.aar3247.

Cancer GPS?

The thing that pretty well everyone knows about cancers is that most are furtive little blighters. They kill one in three of us but usually we don’t they’re there until they are big enough to make something go wrong in the body or to show up in our seriously inadequate screening methods. In that sense they resemble heart problems of one sort or another, where often the first indication of trouble is unexpectedly finding yourself lying on the floor.

Meanwhile, out on the highways and byways you are about 75 times less likely to be killed in an accident than you are to succumb to either cancers or circulation failure. Which is a way of saying that in the UK about 2000 of us perish on the roads each year. That it’s ‘only’ 2000 is presumably because here your assailant is anything but furtive. All you’ve got to do is side-step the juggernaut and you’ll probably live to be – well, old enough to get cancer.

Did you know, by the way, that ‘juggernaut’ is said to come from the chariots of the Jagannath Temple in Puri on the east coast of India. These are vast contraptions used to carry representations of Hindu gods on annual festival days that look as though walking pace would be too much for them. So, replace the monsters on our roads with real juggernauts! Problem largely solved!!

Flagging cancer

But to get back to cancer or, more precisely, the difficulty of seeing it. After centuries of failing to make any inroads, recent dramatic advances give hope that all is about to change. These rely on the fact that tissues shed cells – and with them DNA – into the circulation. Tumours do this too – so in effect they are scattering clues to their existence into blood. By using short stretches of artificial DNA as bait, it’s possible to fish out tumour cell DNA from a few drops of blood. That’s a pretty neat trick in itself, given we’re talking about fewer than 100 tumour cells in a sea of several billion other cells in every cubic millimeter of blood.

There are two big attractions in this ‘microfluidics’ approach. First it’s almost ‘non-invasive’ in needing only a small blood sample and, second, it is possible that indicators may be picked up long before a tumour would otherwise show up. In effect it’s taking a biochemical magnifying glass to our body to ask if there’s anything there that wouldn’t normally be present. Detect a marker and you know there’s a tumour somewhere in the body, and if the marker changes in concentration in response to a treatment, you have a monitor for how well that treatment is doing. So far, so good.

And the problem?

These ‘liquid biopsy’ methods that use just a teaspoonful of blood have been under development for several years but there has been one big cloud hanging over them. They appear to be exquisitely sensitive in detecting the presence of a cancer – by sequencing the DNA picked up – but they have not been able to pinpoint the tissue of origin. Until now.

Step forward epigenetics

Shuli Kang and colleagues at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California have broken this impasse by turning to epigenetics. We noted in Twenty More Winks that an epigenetic modification is any change in DNA, other than in the sequence of bases (i.e. mutation), that affects how an organism develops or functions. They’re brought about by tacking small chemical groups (commonly methyl (CH3) groups) either on to some of the bases in DNA itself or on to the proteins (histones) that act like cotton reels around which DNA wraps itself. The upshot is small changes in the structure of DNA that affect gene expression. You can think of DNA methylation as a series of flags dotted along the DNA strand, decorating it in a seemingly random pattern. It isn’t random, of course, and the target for methylation is a cytosine nucleotide (C) followed by a guanine (G) in the linear DNA sequence – called a CpG site because G and C are separated by one phosphate (p). Phosphate links nucleosides together in the backbone of DNA.

Cancer cells often display abnormal DNA methylation patterns – excess methylation (hypermethylation) in some regions, reduced methylation in others – that contributes to their peculiar behavior. It’s possible to determine the methylation profile of a DNA sample (by a method called bisulfite sequencing).

Kang & Co. developed a computer program to analyse methylation profiles from solid tumours and healthy samples in public databases and compare them to patient DNA of unknown tissue origin.

The peaks represent CpG clusters that characterize normal cells (top) and a variety of cancers. The key point is that the different patterns identify the tissue of origin (from Kang, S. et al., 2017).

The program’s called CancerLocator and in this initial study it was used to test samples from patients with lung, liver or breast cancer. In the modest words of the authors, CancerLocator ‘vastly outperforms’ previous methods – mind you, they struggle to even to distinguish most cancer samples from non-cancer samples. Nevertheless, CancerLocator’s a big step forward, not least because it can detect early stage cancers with 80% accuracy.

It’s also reasonable to expect major improvements as methylation sequencing becomes more extensive and higher resolution reveals more subtle signatures. What’s more, in principle, it should be able to detect all types of cancers – meaning that, after all so many centuries we may at last have a way of side-stepping the juggernaut.


Kang, S. et al. (2017). CancerLocator: non-invasive cancer diagnosis and tissue-of-origin prediction using methylation profiles of cell-free DNA. Genome Biology DOI 10.1186/s13059-017-1191-5.