In the beginning … 

You may have noticed that the American actress Angelina Jolie, who is now employed as a  Special Envoy  for the  United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has re-surfaced in the pages of the science media. She first hit the nerdy headlines by announcing in The New York Times that she had had a preventive double mastectomy (in 2013) and a preventive oophorectomy (in 2015).

We described the molecular biology that prompted her actions in A Taxing Inheritance. The essential facts were that she had a family history of breast and ovarian cancer: genetic testing revealed that she carried a mutation in the BRCA1 gene giving her a 87% risk of breast cancer and a 50% chance of getting ovarian cancer.

A star returns

BRCA1 and breast cancer are back in the news as a result of a paper by Jane Visvader, Geoffrey Lindeman and colleagues in Melbourne that asked a very simple question: which type of cell is driven to proliferate abnormally and give rise to a tumour by mutant BRCA1 protein? That is, pre-cancerous breast tissue contains a mixture of cell types: does cancer develop from one in particular –  and, if you blocked proliferation of that type of cell, could you prevent tumours forming?

Simple question but their paper summarises about 10 years of work to come up with a clear answer.

And the villain is …

The mature mammary gland is made up of lots of small sacs (alveoli) lined with cells that produce milk – called luminal cells. Groups of alveoli are known as lobules, linked by ducts that carry milk to the nipple. Most breast cancers start in the lobular or duct cells.

Breast fig copy

Left: Normal breast lobule showing alveoli lined with milk-producing luminal cells connected to duct leading to the nipple. Right: Normal milk sac, non-invasive cancer, invasive cancer.

Things are complicated by there being more than one type of progenitor cell but the Melbourne group were able to show that, in mice carrying mutated BRCA1, one subtype stood out in terms of its cancerous potential. These cells carried a protein on their surface called RANK (which is member of the tumour necrosis factor family). They had gross defects in their DNA repair systems (so they can’t fix genetic damage) and they’re highly proliferative. Luminal progenitors that don’t express RANK behave normally.

Slide1 copy

Scheme representing normal and abnormal cell development. The basic idea is that different types of cells evolve from a common ancestor. The Australian work identified one type of luminal progenitor cell that carries a protein called RANK on its surface (pink cell) as being a prime source of tumours. RANK+ cells have defective DNA repair systems so they accumulate mutations (red cells) more rapidly than normal cells, a feature of tumour cells.

In mice with mutant BRCA1 a monoclonal antibody (denosumab) that blocks RANK signalling markedly slowed tumour development. In a small pilot study blockade of RANK inhibited cell proliferation in breast tissue from human BRCA1-mutation carriers.


How effective blocking the activation of RANK signalling will be in preventing breast cancer is anyone’s guess but the idea behind the work of the Australian group cannot be faulted. Being able to prevent the ‘starter’ cells from launching themselves on the pathway to cancer driven by mutation in BRCA1 would mean that women in Angelina Jolie’s position would not have to contemplate the drastic course of surgery. The question is: will the preliminary mouse results lead to something that works in humans and, moreover, does so with high efficiency. As ever in cancer, watch this space – but don’t hold your breath!


Nolan, E. et al. (2016). RANK ligand as a potential target for breast cancer prevention in BRCA1-mutation carriers.



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”

What Took You So Long?

A long, long time ago – 25 years to be precise – I was lucky enough to work for a few months at The University of New England in Armidale, up on the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales. And jolly wonderful it was too. You could see grazing kangaroos from my lab window and I got to play grade cricket! To anyone who’ll listen I can still describe in vivid detail the scoring of my first run in Oz. We’d won the toss and … (that’s quite enough cricket, Ed).

Equally wonderful is the fact that, in part courtesy of The University of Queensland, I’m going again to Oz – this time to do what I didn’t manage then: visit all the major cities. We begin in Brisbane this week giving a lecture in the U of Q’s Global Leadership series (yes really!), explaining the biology of cancer to an audience of largely non-scientists – at least I hope I’ve got the right brief! We end up in Perth in May having, in between if I can stick the pace, given a variety of talks and seminars to the general public, to schools and to cancer research institutes in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. How good is that? Being invited to warble on about one of your favorite subjects whilst touring Oz? Wow!

What’s new?

All of which makes you think a bit about Father Time and what has happened in the interim. Answer quite a lot, of course. Collapse of communism, collapse and resurgence of Australian cricket (that’s your last warning, Ed) and so on but we’re supposed to inform and enthuse about cancer here so how’s that faired, particularly in Australia? Well, in the year I first followed Captain Cook (watch it, Ed) onto the shore of Botany Bay about 60,000 Australians were diagnosed with cancers of one sort or another and some 30,000 died from these diseases. At that time one in three men and one in four women would be directly affected by cancer in the first 75 years of life.

A Cook

Alastair Cook

And now? This time round the estimated numbers are 128,000 and over 43,000 with one in two men/one in three women discovering they have cancer by time they’re 85. All told, cancer accounts for about three in ten Australian deaths – much the same contribution as heart disease. To add to the gloom the numbers are going up not down so the prediction is 150,000 new cancer cases in 2020.

Not a lot and no surprise

Well, you may be thinking, no change there then – or even I told you so. After all, I’m forever in these pieces elaborating on current cancer stories holding forth about how slow is the progress of science: one step forward, two back, more of a shuffle than a step really, and so on. Or as Martin Schwartz more eloquently puts it, describing science as the art of productive stupidity – being ignorant by choice. This follows almost inevitably from the nature of research because working on what we don’t understand puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. As Schwartz has it, one of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. That’s why I keep telling you to ignore the “great breakthough” newspaper headline dribble – that’s just the hacks trying anything to persuade their editors to give them space to promote themselves.

But wait a mo.

All that sounds consistent with the signs that things in Oz have been going backwards at a rate of knots over the last 20-odd years. But hang on. As ever, bare stats can be a bit misleading (remember what Disraeli said). Thus although around 19,000 more people die each year from cancer than 30 years ago, this is due mainly to population growth and aging – Australian life expectancy has gone up by over four years since 1990 (it’s now 82). The death rate from cancers has fallen by more than 16% and the survival rate for many common cancers has increased by 30 per cent in the past two decades. So that’s great: terrific ad for living in Oz and something of a triumph for medical science.

A sunny side in Oz?

What’s more you can put a positive twist on even the gloomy side of the picture by noting that, if indeed there’s strength in unity, Australia’s trends are much the same as everyone else’s in what we like to call the developed world. Well sort of but there’s a serious negative for Australia Fair, as you might put it, something that sticks out like a sore thumb (or an itchy mole) when you glance at the stats. Between 1980 and 2010 the incidence of skin cancer has shot up in Australia by around 60%. The most common type is non-melanoma skin cancer – usually treatable as it generally doesn’t spread around the body. The nasty version is malignant melanoma – which does metastasize, although is essentially curable if caught before some of its cells escape from the primary site. And the really bad news is that it is now the third most common cancer in Australians and in those aged 15-44 years it is the most common cancer. In 2012, over 12,000 Australians were diagnosed with melanoma and it killed over 1,600. This disease is usually set off by ultraviolet light from sunlight (or sunbeds) damaging DNA (i.e. causing mutations) and you will not have missed the allusion to the fact that people with fair skin (or blue or green eyes/red or blond hair) are most at risk.So the current Oz figures are a bit of a blow to Richie Benaud’s campaign of which I made great play in Slip-Slop-Slap Is Not Enough.


ABCD rule illustration: On the left side from top to bottom: melanomas showing asymmetry, a border that is uneven, ragged, or notched, coloring of different shades of brown, black, or tan and diameter that had changed in size. The normal moles on the right side do not have abnormal characteristics (no asymmetry, even border, even color, no change in diameter).

Meanwhile in the lab?

It’s pretty sobering for me to reflect that it was only a few years before I went to Oz that the first human cancer gene (oncogene) was discovered. That was RAS, detected in human cancer cells in 1982 by Geoffrey Cooper at Harvard, Mariano Barbacid and Stuart Aaronson at the NIH, Robert Weinberg at MIT and Michael Wigler at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Between then and 2003 several hundred more cancer genes were identified in a huge frenzy of molecular stamp collecting. Then came the human genome sequencing project and in its wake analysis of tumours on a scale and level of detail that is almost stupefying and would have been unimaginable before 2003. To appreciate the mountain of cancer data that has been assembled over that period, screen the literature data base for research papers that have ‘RAS’ in the title: that is, contain significant info relating to that gene. Answer: 76,000. That’s seventy-six thousand separate pieces of research that have made it through all the peer review and editorial machinery to see the light of day in print. And RAS, massive player though it is, is not the biggest. Do the same check for a gene called P53 and the number is: over 145,000!!

Confused? The plot so far …

First up we noted that the cancer burden in Oz has got a lot heavier over the last 25 years, then we reminded you that advances in science are of the snail-like variety – so you shouldn’t be surprised when things seem to go backwards. But, flipping to the other hand, we trotted out another set of figures saying things have actually got much better (life expectancy and cancer survival rates have steadily climbed). Though, switching hands again, melanoma’s gone through the roof. However, going back to the first hand, if we can still locate it, we noted the massive explosion in the facts mountain of cancer biology for which the blue touch paper was only lit about 25 years ago.

And your parliamentary candidate is …

What with all this sleight-of-hand, flip-flopping and U-turning, it occurs to me that I’m shaping up rather well as a prospective politician. I’m quite taken with the idea, especially as if I stood as an MP in my own constituency I’d be up against Andrew Lansley who, as you’ve probably forgotten, was once upon a time Secretary of State for Health. Being a virtuous and helpful soul, when Betrayed by Nature came out I sent him a copy as a gift, a freebie, – figuring that, as a career civil servant and politician who’d become responsible for the nation’s health, he might find it useful to read a basic primer on something that was killing 150,000 UK citizens every year. Thoughtful, you’d say? Indeed. Did I expect to find him on my doorstep next day gushing gratitude and thirsting for more knowledge? Maybe not, even though he only lives round the corner and we have actually met in the dim past. But at least one might have received a note – a one line email, perhaps – from his PA, who can scarcely be too busy to be polite. But no. Nothing. Zippo. So I came up with a brief sentence that summarised my take on this example of voter wooing, or indeed plain good manners, but I can’t remember it now – for the best perhaps. What is it the Bible says about getting narked? Something along the lines of “whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.”

So thank heavens we’ve side-stepped that but nevertheless, Andrew, it really would be a joy to give you a bloody nose – electorally speaking, of course – so let’s just give those credentials one more buffing. We started by lowering your expectations of science with the reminder that things proceed at a snail’s pace {you do realise that common analogy is very unfair on snails? Scientists have shown they can bowl along at a metre an hour (yippee, we do discover things!) – not much slower than your average supermarket trolley-pusher, but here’s the thing. Snail’s pace means they can get round the garden in one night. That’s the whole of their world covered in one go – without mechanical assistance!! Not so slow after all, eh?}. But the flip side is that the genomic era has already seen the development of a number of drugs that are effective against malignant melanoma. They’re not perfect but at least they take us a step further in dealing with this cancer once it has spread around the body.

And the message?

(That’s quite enough politics, Ed). OK. Let’s abandon a promising career and go back to being a scientist with a typically punchy summary. Australia’s wonderful but when it comes to cancer it’s not much different to any other rich country (not really a flip that, just a statement of fact). Folk are living longer so, of course, more of us will ‘get’ cancer but we seem to think that longevity buys us more time to smoke, booze, burn ourselves pink and eat crappy food. Medical science is doing wonders in detection and treatment: at nearly $400 million a year on cancer research, almost a quarter of all health research expenditure in Australia, it jolly well should. But if we don’t do more to help ourselves the cancer burden is going to overwhelm health resources not just ‘down under’ but all over.


Schwartz, M.A. (2008). The importance of stupidity in scientific research. J Cell Sci 2008 121:1771; doi:10.1242/jcs.033340