Turning Ourselves On


It may seem a bit tasteless but we have to admit that cancer’s a very ‘trendy’ field. That is, there’s always a current fad — something for which either the media or cancer scientists themselves have the hots. Inevitable I suppose, given the importance of cancer to pretty well everyone and the fact that something’s always happening.

If you had to pick the front-running trends of late I guess most of us might go for ‘personalized medicine’ and ‘immunotherapy.’ The first means tailoring treatment to the individual patient, the second is boosting the innate power of the immune system to fight cancer.

Few things are trendier than this blog so it goes without saying that we’ve done endless pieces on these topics (e.g. Fantastic Stuff, Outsourcing the Immune Response, Self-Help – Part 2, bla, bla, bla).

How considerate then of Krijn Dijkstra, Hans Clevers, Emile Voest and colleagues from the Netherlands Cancer Institute to have neatly combined the two in their recent paper.

Simple really

What they did was did was easy — in principle. They grew fresh tumour tissue from patients in dishes in the laboratory. Although it doesn’t work every time, most of the main types of cancer have been grown in this way to give 3D cultures called tumour organoids — tumours-in-a-dish. That’s the ‘personalized’ bit.

Then they took blood from the patient and grew the lymphocytes therein in a dish to expand the T cells that were specific for the patient’s tumour. That’s the ‘‘immuno’ bit.

Growing tumour tissue (from non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and colorectal cancers [CRC] in culture as tumour organoids. This permits the expansion of T cells from peripheral blood to give an enlarged population of cells that will kill those tumours. From Dijkstra et al. 2018.

And the results?

They were able to show that enriched populations of tumour-reactive T cells could kill tumour organoids and, importantly, that organoids formed from healthy tissue were not attacked by these T cells.

Stained organoids (left) and original tissue (right) from two colorectal cancers (CRC-2 & CRC-5) showing how the organoids grow to have an architecture similar to the original tumour. From Dijkstra et al. 2018.

Their method worked for both bowel tumours and non-small-cell lung cancer but there’s no reason to suppose it can’t be extended to other types of cancer.

Some of their videos showing tumour organoids being chomped up by enriched killer T cells are quite dramatic. Cells labelled green that can be seen in this video are dying.

So there you have it: DIY tumour therapy!


Dijkstra, K.K. et al. (2018). Generation of Tumor-Reactive T Cells
by Co-culture of Peripheral Blood Lymphocytes and Tumor Organoids. Cell 174, 1–13.


Self Help – Part 2

In the second type of cancer immunotherapy a sample of a patient’s T lymphocytes is grown in the lab. This permits either expansion of the number of cells that recognize the tumour or genetic engineering to modify the cells so they express receptors on their surface that target them to the tumour cell surface. Infusion of these manipulated cells into the patient enhances tumour cell killing. We’re now in the realms of ‘personalized medicine’.

A little more of a good thing

The first of these methods picks up a weakness in the patient’s immune system whereby it makes lymphocytes that kill tumour cells but can’t make enough – their protective effect is overwhelmed by the growing cancer. By taking small pieces of surgically removed tumours and growing them in the lab, it’s possible to select those T cells that have killing capacity. These are expanded over a few weeks to make enough cells to keep on growing when they’re infused back into the patient. The upshot is a hefty boost for the natural anti-tumour defence system. The pioneer of this method, called adoptive cell therapy, is Steven Rosenberg (National Cancer Institute, Bethesda) and it has been particularly effective for melanomas. Responses are substantially improved by treatment with drugs that reduce the white cell count before samples are taken for T cell selection – probably because the system responds by making growth factors to restore the balance and these drive the expansion of the infused cells.

A wonderful benefit of this method is its efficacy against metastases – i.e. tumour growths that have spread from the primary site – perhaps not surprising as it’s what Rosenberg calls a “living” treatment, in other words it just gives a helping hand to what nature is already trying to do.

93. Fig. 1Selecting naturally occurring T cells with anti-tumour activity

Tumour fragments are grown in the laboratory: lymphocytes that kill tumour cells are selected and expanded in culture.  About 6 weeks growth yields enough cells to infuse into the patient.

Gene therapy

A more sophisticated approach to boosting innate immunity is to introduce new genes into the genetic material (the genome) of T cells to target them to tumour cells with greater efficiency. An ordinary blood sample suffices as a starting point from which T cells are isolated. One way of getting them to take up novel genes uses viruses – essentially just genetic material wrapped in an envelope. The virus is ‘disabled’ so that it has none of its original disease-causing capacity but retains infectivity – it sticks to cells. ‘Disabling’ means taking just enough of the original genome to make the virus – a viral skeleton – and then inserting your favourite gene, so the engineered form is just a handy vehicle for carrying genes. No need to panic, therefore, if you see a press headline of the “HIV cures cancer” variety: it just means that the human immunodeficiency virus – well and truly disabled – has been used as the gene carrier.

93. Fig. 2

Genetic modification of blood lymphocytes

T cells are isolated from a blood sample and novel genes inserted into their DNA. The engineered T cells are expanded and then infused into the patient.

 This method of re-directing T cells to a desired target was pioneered by Gideon Gross and colleagues at The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel in the late 1980s and it has led to sensational recent results in treating chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), albeit in just a few patients so far. To the fore have been Renier Brentjens and his group from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York. The genetic modification they used made the patient’s T cells express an artificial receptor on their surface (called a chimeric antigen receptor). This T cell receptor was designed to stick specifically to a protein known to be displayed on the surface of CLL cells. The result was that the T cells, originally unable to ‘see’ the leukemic cells, now homed in on them with high efficiency. Astonishingly, and wonderfully, the modified cells divide in the patient so that, in effect, their immune system has been permanently super-charged.

A critical part of the strategy is that CLL cells carry a known molecular target but the absence of such defined markers for most cancers is currently a severe limitation. On the bright side, however, this type of gene therapy has now been attempted in at least three different centres and, despite inevitable minor differences in method, it clearly works.

One of the leading figures in gene therapy is Carl June of the University of Pennsylvania. Some of his colleagues have made a brilliant video explaining how it works whilst June himself has described in wonderfully humble fashion what it means to work in this field.


Rosenberg, S.A. and Restifo, N.P. (2015). Adoptive cell transfer as personalized immunotherapy for human cancer. Science 348, 62-68.

Gross, G., et al. (1989). Expression of immunoglobulin-T-cell receptor chimeric molecules as functional receptorswith antibody-type specificity. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 86, 10024–10028.

Brentjens, R.J., et al. (2013). CD19-Targeted T Cells Rapidly Induce Molecular Remissions in Adults with Chemotherapy-Refractory Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Sci Transl Med., 5, 177ra38. DOI:10.1126/scitranslmed.3005930.

Kalos, M., et al. (2011). T cells with chimeric antigen receptors have potent antitumor effects and can establish memory in patients with advanced leukemia. Sci. Transl. Med. 3, 95ra73.

Kochenderfer, J.N., et al. (2012). B-cell depletion and remissions of malignancy along with cytokine-associated toxicity in a clinical trial of anti-CD19 chimeric-antigen-receptor–transduced T cells. Blood 119, 2709–2720.


Fast Food Fix Focuses on Fibre

If you’re like me you’re probably more bored than absorbed by the seemingly continuous stream of ‘studies’ telling us what we should and shouldn’t eat. No one’s going to argue it’s unimportant but gee, I wish they’d make their minds up. Of course the study of diet and its effects is tricky – as we noted in Betrayed by Nature – not least because you generally need enormous numbers of people to tease out significant effects.

Fortunately authoritative sources like The American Heart Association offer generally sane and simple advice: “eat a balanced diet and do enough exercise to match the number of calories you take in.”

A balanced diet includes fibre, sometimes called roughage, the stuff we eat but can’t digest that assists in taking up water and generally keeping our insides working. There’s much evidence that eating plenty of fibre helps to prevent bowel cancer – usually accumulated from vast numbers (e.g., the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study involved over half a million people from ten European countries). But even for fibre, when you might just be thinking the answer’s clear-cut, there are other studies showing no protective effect.

So hooray for Stephen O’Keefe and friends from the University of Pittsburgh and Imperial College London for coming up with a dead simple experiment – and some pretty astonishing results (though to prevent panic we should reveal at the outset that they confirm that a high fibre diet can substantially reduce the risk of colon cancer).

Doing the obvious

The experiment compared what happened to two groups of 20, one African Americans, the other from rural South Africa, when they swapped diets for two weeks. So, in principle ‘dead simple’ but to describe it thus does a great injustice to the huge amount of effort involved – for a start they had to find two lots of 20 volunteers willing to have a colonoscopy examination before and after the diet swap. The Western diet was, of course, high protein, high fat, low fibre, whereas the typical African diet was high in fibre and low in fat and protein. Just to be clear, the American diet included beef sausage and pancakes for breakfast, burger and chips for lunch, etc. The traditional African diet comprises corn based products, vegetables, fruit and pulses, e.g., corn fritters, spinach and red pepper for breakfast.

B'fast jpegCompare and contrast.

A rural South African diet (corn fritters for breakfast) and the American diet (Getty images)

Shock – and horror

Almost incredibly, within the two weeks of these experiments there were significant, reciprocal changes in both markers for cancer development and in the bug army – the microbiota – inhabiting the digestive tracts of the volunteers. That is, the dreaded colonoscopy revealed polyps (tumour precursors) in nine Americans (that were removed) but none in the Africans. Cells sampled from bowel linings had significantly higher proliferation rates (a biomarker of cancer risk) in African Americans than in Africans. After the diet switch the proliferation rates flipped, decreasing in African Americans whilst the Africans now had rates even higher than in the starting African American group. These changes were paralled by an influx of inflammation-associated cells (lymphocytes and macrophages) in the now high-fat diet Africans whilst these decreased in the Americans on their new, high-fibre diet.

Equally amazing, these reciprocal shifts were also associated with corresponding changes in specific microbes and their metabolites. You may recall meeting our microbiota (in The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men and It’s a Small World) – the 1000 or so assorted species of bacteria that have made you their home, mostly in your digestive tract, of which there are two major sub-families, Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes (Bs & Fs). We saw that artificial sweeteners in the form of saccharin shifts our bug balance: Fs down, Bs up. Here feeding Americans high-fibre diet was associated with a shift from Bs To Fs. As we noted before, the composition of the bug army is important because of the chemicals (metabolites) they produce – in this case the diet switch resulted in more short chain fatty acids (e.g., butyrate) in the American group and a reciprocal drop therein for the Africans.

The bottom line

It really is quite remarkable that these indicators of cancer risk manifest themselves so rapidly following a change to a typical Western diet. Of course ‘markers’ are one thing, cancer is another. As one of the authors, Jeremy Nicholson of Imperial College London, said: “We can’t definitively tell from these measurements that the change in their diet would have led to more cancer in the African group or less in the American group, but there is good evidence from other studies that the changes we observed are signs of cancer risk.”

Put less scientifically, “a nod’s as good as a wink to a blind horse.”


O’Keefe, S.J.D. et al. (2015). Fat, fibre and cancer risk in African Americans and rural Africans. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6342 doi:10.1038/ncomms7342

Trouble With The Neighbours

It may seem odd to the point of negligence that a problem mankind has been grappling with since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians should, within the last ten years or so, be shown to have a whole new dimension, scarcely conceived hitherto. This hidden world, often now called the tumour microenvironment, is created as solid tumours develop and attract a variety of normal cells from the host to form a cellular cloud that envelops them and supports their growth (as we noted in Cooperative Cancer Groupies). We shouldn’t beat ourselves up for being slow to grasp its existence yet alone its importance – just take it as a reminder of the multi-faceted complexity that is cancer.

It’s true that over one hundred years ago the London physician Stephen Paget came up with his “seed and soil” idea – the notion that when cells escape from a primary tumour and spread to secondary sites (metastasis) they need to find a suitable spot that will nourish their growth, otherwise they perish – a fate that befalls most of them, fortunately for us.

But in the twenty-first century …

Perceptive though that idea was, it didn’t relate to the goings on in the vicinity of primary tumours – where the current picture is indeed of a cosmopolitan crowd of cellular groupies being recruited as the tumor starts to grow such that they infiltrate and closely interact with the cancer cells. The groupies are attracted by chemical messengers released by tumour cells – but it becomes a two-way communication, with messenger proteins shuttling to and fro between the different cell types.

Tumor uenvirThe tumour neighbourhood.

Two-way communication between host cells and tumor cells.

 White blood cells (e.g., lymphocytes and macrophages) are one group that succumbs to the magnetism of tumours. They’re part of the immune response that initially tries to eliminate the abnormal growth but, in an extraordinary transformation, when tumour cells manage to evade this defense the recruited cells change sides so to speak, switching their action to release signals that actively support tumor growth. The idea of boosting the initial anti-tumour response, thereby using the host defence system to increase the efficiency of tumour elimination, is the basis of immunotherapy, a popular research field at present to which we will return in a later piece.

Who’s who among the groupies

The finding that cells flooding into the ambience of a tumour can affect growth of the cancer has focussed attention on identifying all the constituents of the cellular cloud and unraveling their actions. Two recent studies by Claudio Isella from the University of Turin and Alexandre Calon from Barcelona, with their colleagues, have looked at a type of bowel cancer that has a particularly poor prognosis and used an ingenious ploy to lift the veil on who’s doing what to whom in the tumour milieu.

The tumours were initially classified on the basis of a genetic signature – that is, a snapshot of which genes are active in a tumour sample – ‘switched on’ or ‘expressed’ in the jargon – meaning that the information encoded in a stretch of DNA sequence is being used to make a functional gene product, usually a protein. They then used the crafty tactic of implanting human tumour cells into mice (the mice are ‘immunocompromised’ so that they don’t reject the human cells), separated the major types of cell in the tumours that grew and then looked at the genes expressed in those sub-sets. Remarkably, it emerged that, of the cell groupies that infiltrate into primary tumours, fibroblasts are particularly potent at driving tumour growth and metastasis. Fibroblasts are a cell type that makes the molecular scaffold that gives structure and shape to the various tissues and organs in animals – so it’s a surprise, to say the least, to find that cells with a rather mundane day job can play an important role in cancer progression. In this model system the sequence differences between corresponding human and mouse genes confirm that the predominant driver is mouse cells infiltrating the human tumours. Perhaps it shouldn’t be quite such a shock to find fibroblasts dabbling in cancer as we have met cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) before as cells that, by releasing leptin, can promote the growth and invasion of breast cancer cells (in Isn’t Science Wonderful? Obesity Talks to Cancer).

How useful might this be?

As ever, this is just one more small step. However, the other key finding from this work is that a critical signal for the CAFs is a protein called transforming growth factor beta (TGFβ) and a small molecule that blocks its signal inhibits metastasis of human tumour cells in the mouse model. So yet again the cancer biologist’s best friend gives a glimmering of hope for human therapy.


Isella, C. et al. (2015). Stromal contribution to the colorectal cancer transcriptome. Nature Genet. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ng.3224

Calon, A. et al. (2015). Stromal gene expression defines poor-prognosis subtypes in colorectal cancer. Nature Genet. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ng.3225