Boldly Going

When you come across a very successful, middle-aged scientist jumping up and down shouting “This is going to be just amazing” you can only conclude that either the pressures of the life scientific have finally got to him and he’s flipped or there is something really remarkable going on. Thus my feeling this week when I noted the behaviour of Greg Hannon who now works at the Cancer Research Institute in Cambridge.

Probing further, it emerged that Hannon, who is collaborating with Xiaowei Zhuang at Harvard University in the ‘other’ Cambridge, has just been awarded a five-year grant of £20 million by the London-based charity Cancer Research UK as part of its Grand Challenge initiative – more than enough to get your jumping genes going.

But it’s the aim of the project rather than its monetary size that is truly astonishing and has almost a feel of science fiction about it. The plan is nothing less than to come up with an interactive virtual-reality map of breast cancers. That is, to reconstruct every cell that makes up a tumour, showing the different types of cell and what they are up to at any given time – meaning that the model will display the expression level of thousands of genes in each cell and the different proteins being made. Staggering.

What’s the point?

The project is driven by the fact that we have gradually come to realize that tumours are a complex mixture of cells (what’s been called the tumour microenvironment) and the signals that these cells send out and receive determine the extent of tumour growth and whether it can spread to other sites in the body (i.e. metastasize).

Where have we got to?

One approach to mapping what’s going on was laid out a couple of years ago by the converging studies of Rahul Satija and colleagues of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and Kaia Achim et al. from labs in Heidelberg, Cambridge and Oxford using zebrafish embryos and worm brains, respectively.

The method has two parts:

  1. The tissue is dissociated into single cells and the power of sequencing is applied to obtain RNA sequences from each cell (revealing which genes are ‘switched on’ in that cell).
  2. The second step visualizes specific RNAs using tagged probes (fluorescently labeled RNAs that enter cells and bind to target RNAs molecules).

In essence a reference map is made by overlaying the intact tissue with a grid and matching a cell to a grid area by comparing expression of a number of ‘landmark’ genes with the fluorescence marker signal.

To do all this they devised a computational package that, using fewer than 100 landmark genes, maps hundreds of sequenced cells to their location in the tissue. In that arty way that scientists have, they named their package after Georges-Pierre Seurat, the French chappie who came up with the idea of painting in small dots of colour (though his weren’t fluorescent).

Cellular pointillism has just taken another step forward with Keren Bahar Halpern, Ido Amit and Shalev Itzkovitz at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel producing a cell-by-cell map of mouse liver, complete with RNA sequences from each cell. To be precise they mapped the hexagon-shaped units called lobules that are repeated to make up mammalian liver.

The shapes of things to come

So the next step for Hannon and his colleagues is an interactive map of a human tumour and, if you can’t wait, CLICK HERE to see their mock-up to give you some idea of what’s in store. In this synthetic video tumour cells are green, macrophages are blue and blood vessels are red.


So it’s warp factor 9 for Captain Hannon and his crew. It may be that the 3D images of tumours will look a bit the virtual graphics that the astrophysicists fob off on us whilst pretending they have some idea what a star’s doing umpti-zillion light years away. But in fact, rather than boldly going where no man has gone before“, this cellular journey is better summed up by Marcel Proust The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes” – the new eyes being the stunning combination of methods that permits 3D interrogation of individual cells.

Will this phase of the Grand Challenge produce overwhelming amounts of data? Undoubtedly. But, if we are to understand how living things work we have to front up to the complexity of nature. We then have to hope we are smart enough to resolve the crucial from the detail.


Satija, R. et al. (2015). Spatial reconstruction of single-cell gene expression data. Nature Biotechnology 33, 495–502.

Achim, K. et al. (2015). High-throughput spatial mapping of single-cell RNA-seq data to tissue of origin. Nature Biotechnology 33, 503–509.

Halpern, K. B. et al. (2017). Nature 542, 352–356.

Open Wide for Pasty’s Throat


Once upon a time (1903 to be exact) a very rich Adelaide family acquired a new member in the form of a little boy whom they christened Norman. Most of the family were doctors and, so well-heeled were they, when young Norm reached the age of 10 they clubbed together and sent him off to the Old Country – and not just to any bit of Merrie England but to Eton (the school, of course, not the rustic parish, generally held to be the most expensive of all – fees currently about £36,000 a year, not counting extras). Norm never returned: South Australia’s loss was Britain’s gain.

We all know what happens to kids that go to Eton – but our Adelaide man was different. For one thing he was very bright and for another he had his family’s love of medicine. He ended up specializing in the thorax – the bit between the neck and the tummy that includes the oesophagus, commonly known as the foodpipe or gullet. Eton probably helped get him started but, even more usefully, some bright spark there gave him the nickname ‘Pasty’ – so great an improvement on Norman that it stuck for life. ‘Pasty’ Barrett ended up as a consultant at St. Thomas’ Hospital where, in 1947, he successfully repaired a ruptured oesophagus – a surgical first for a hitherto fatal condition.

Shortly after that, in 1950, he described finding that sometimes the cells lining the gullet change in appearance, switching from multiple layers of flat cells to a single layer of cells that look like those found in the intestine. We know now that this change is caused by acid from the stomach being squeezed up into the oesophagus. Occasional regurgitation is called heartburn but when it’s persistent it becomes gastric reflux disease – and in about 10% of those cases sustained irritation caused by the stomach juices upsets the cells lining the gullet and they undergo the change to what is now called Barrett’s oesophagus.

Who cares about Barrett’s?

Well, we should all at least take note because a few percent of those with Barrett’s oesophagus will get cancer of the oesophagus, which is now the sixth most common cause of cancer-related death world-wide. Oesophageal cancer has become more common over the last 40 years, men are more prone to it than women and it kills about 15,000 people in the USA each year and nearly 8,000 in the UK. It’s very bad news. Most cases aren’t discovered until the disease has spread and it is then more or less untreatable. The prognosis is dismal: the five-year survival figure is barely 15%. Part of the problem is that the main sign is pain or difficulty in swallowing, often ignored until it is too late.

For many years the only way of finding abnormal tissue was by an endoscopy – a tube with a camera pushed down the throat – both unpleasant and expensive. There has, therefore, been a desperate need for an easy, cheap, non-invasive test to screen for Barrett’s oesophagus.

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald

     Professor Rebecca             Fitzgerald

Pill on a string

Enter Rebecca Fitzgerald, a member of the Department of Oncology in Cambridge and a consultant at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, with a brilliantly simple development from earlier attempts to screen the lining of the gullet. The patient swallows a kind of tea-bag on a string which is then pulled up from the stomach. The ‘tea-bag’ is actually a capsule about the size of a multi-vitamin pill containing a sort of honeycomb sponge covered with a coating that dissolves in a few minutes when it reaches the stomach. As the sponge comes up it picks up cells from the gullet lining (about half a million of them) that can then be analysed. The whole gizmo’s called a ‘Cytosponge’. It works with no problems and because it collects cells from the length of the gullet it gives a complete picture, rather than the local regions sampled in biopsies.

Pill on a string

                 Pill on a string

Cytosponge (left) and being drawn up the gullet (right)

       Cytosponge (left) and being             drawn up the gullet (right)






What we’ve learned

The hope was that the cells picked up by Cytosponge could be sequenced – i.e. their DNA code could be obtained – and that this would reveal the stages of oesophageal cancer development and hence whether a given case of Barrett’s would or would not progress to cancer. The phases of Barrett’s oesophagus involve a change in the shape of cells lining the tube (from thin, flat cells called squamous epithelial cells to taller columnar cells resembling those in the intestine). This change is called metaplasia: the abnormal cells may then proliferate (dysplasia). If this stage can be detected it’s possible to remove the abnormal tissue by using endoscopic therapy before the condition progresses to full carcinoma.

Remarkably, whole-genome sequences from Barrett’s and from oesophageal carcinoma showed that multiple mutations (changes in DNA sequence) accumulate even in cells that are over-proliferating but look normal. The picture is similar to the ‘battlefield of hundreds of competing mutant clones’ in normal eyelid skin that we saw in The Blink of an Eye.

As the condition progresses the range of mutations increases: in particular, regions of DNA are duplicated – so that the genes therein are present in abnormal numbers. Typically there were 12,000 mutations per person with Barrett’s oesophagus without cancer and 18,000 mutations within the cancer.

Even from this mayhem there emerged mutation patterns (changes in the letters of the DNA code, e.g., A to a G or C to a T) characteristic of the damage caused to the cells lining the oesophagus by splashing stomach acid. These ‘fingerprints’ were found in both Barrett’s and oesophageal cancer – consistent with them being very early events – parallelling the specific mutations in lung cancer caused by tobacco carcinogens.

But …

The great hope was that the spectrum of mutations would identify precursors to cancer and hence those patients requiring treatment. In fact these horribly heterogeneous tissues – a real genetic gemisch – show surprisingly little mutational overlap between Barrett’s oesophagus and oesophageal cancer.

However, it’s possible to take the cells collected by the Cytosponge and screen them for the presence of specific proteins (using antibodies) and it turns out that one in particular, TFF3 (Trefoil Factor 3), provides a highly accurate diagnosis of Barrett’s oesophagus. In addition, although the genetic changes that occur during the progression from Barrett’s to cancer are complex, mutations in one gene (P53 – the ‘guardian of the genome’) are common in pre-cancerous, high grade dysplasia and thus provide an indicator of risk.

All of which means that we haven’t ‘conquered’ oesophageal cancer – but thanks to these remarkable advances we have a much better understanding of its molecular basis. Even more importantly, it’s possible to detect the early stages – and do something about it.

AND … whilst making a major contribution to all this, Rebecca Fitzgerald very kindly found time to make suggestions and provide additional information for this piece.


Ross-Innes, C.S., Fitzgerald, R.C. et al. (2015). Nature Genetics 47, 1038-1046.


Pass the Aspirin

And so you should if you’ve got a headache – unless, of course, you prefer paracetamol. There can scarcely be anyone who hasn’t resorted to a dose of slightly modified salicylic acid (For the chemists: its hydroxyl group is converted into an ester group (R-OH → R-OCOCH3) in aspirin), given that the world gobbles up an estimated 40,000 tonnes of the stuff every year. It’s arguable, therefore, that an obscure clergyman by the name of Edward Stone has done more for human suffering than pretty well anyone, for it was he who, in 1763, made a powder from the bark of willow trees and discovered its wondrous property. The bark and leaves had actually been used for centuries – back at least to the time of Hippocrates – for reducing pain and fever, although it wasn’t until 1899 that Aspirin made its debut on the market and it was 1971 before John Vane discovered how it actually worked. He got a Nobel Prize for showing that it blocks production of things called prostaglandins that act a bit like hormones to regulate inflammation (for the chemists – again! – it irreversibly inactivates the enzyme cyclooxygenase, known as COX to its pals).

Daily pill popping

Aside from fixing the odd ache, over the years evidence has gradually accumulated that people at high risk of heart attack and those who have survived a heart attack should take a low-dose of aspirin every day. In addition to decreasing inflammation (by blocking prostaglandins) aspirin inhibits the formation of blood clots – so helping to prevent heart attack and stroke. Almost as a side-effect the studies that have lead to this being a firm recommendation have also shown that aspirin may reduce the risk of cancers, particularly of the bowel (colorectal cancer). Notably, Peter Rothwell and colleagues from Oxford showed that daily aspirin taken for 10 years reduced the risk of bowel cancer by 24% and also protected against oesophageal cancer – and a more recent analysis has broadly supported these findings. In addition they have also found that aspirin lowers the risk of cancers spreading around the body, i.e. forming distant metastases.

Why is aspirin giving us a headache – again?

First because a large amount of media coverage has been given to a report from Leiden University Medical Center, presented at The European Cancer Congress in September, that used Dutch records to see whether taking aspirin after being diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer influenced survival. Their conclusion was that patients using aspirin after diagnosis doubled their survival chances compared with those who did not take aspirin. Needless to say, these words have been trumpeted by newspapers from The Times to the Daily Mail in the usual fashion (“Aspirin could almost double your chance of surviving cancer”). Unfortunately we can’t lay all the blame on the press: the authors of the report used the tactic of issuing a Press Release, a thoroughly reprehensible ploy for gaining attention when the work involved has not been peer reviewed. (The point here for non-scientists is that you can stand up at a meeting and say the moon’s made of blue cheese and it’s fine. Only after your work has been assessed by colleagues in the course of the normal publication process does it begin to have some credibility). So there’s a problem here, with what was an ‘observational study’, as to just what the findings mean – and the wise thing is to wait for the results of a ‘randomised controlled trial’ that is under way. 

The second source of mental strain is down to the ferociously named United States Preventive Services Task Force that has just (September 2015) come up with the recommendation that we should take aspirin to prevent bowel cancer. Why should we pay any attention? Because the ‘Force’ are appointed by the US Department of Health and they wield great influence upon medical practice – and because it’s the first time a major American medical organization has issued a broad recommendation to take aspirin to prevent a form of cancer.

In this latest oeuvre they confirm that the well-known risks attached to aspirin-eating (ulcers and stomach bleeding) are out-weighed by the protection against heart disease in those between the ages of 50 and 69 who are at high risk (e.g., have a history of heart attacks). If you feel your heart can take the strain you can find out your risk by using the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s online risk assessment tool. To get an answer you need to know your age, sex (i.e. gender, as its called these days), cholesterol levels (total and high density lipoproteins, HDLs – they’re the ‘good’ cholesterol), whether you smoke and your systolic blood pressure (that’s the X in X/Y).

This is such a critical issue it’s worth seeing what the Task Force actually said: “The USPSTF recommends low-dose aspirin use for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and colorectal cancer in adults ages 50 to 59 years who have a 10% or greater 10-year CVD risk, are not at increased risk for bleeding, have a life expectancy of at least 10 years, and are willing to take low-dose aspirin daily for at least 10 years.”

If you’re younger than 50 or over 70 you’re on your own: the Force doesn’t recommend anything. And if you’re 60 to 69 the wording of their advice is wonderfully delicate: The decision to use low-dose aspirin to prevent CVD (cardiovascular disease) and colorectal cancer in adults ages 60 to 69 years who have a greater than 10% 10-year CVD risk should be an individual one.”

So that’s cleared that up …

Er, not quite. Various luminaries have been quick to demur. For example, Dr. Steven Nissen, the chairman of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic has opined that the Task Force “has gotten it wrong.” In other words aspirin does more harm than good – though he might be a bit late as seemingly an astonishing 40% of Americans over the age of 50 take aspirin to prevent cardiovascular disease. I reckon that’s about 40 million people. Mmm … so that’s where the 40,000 tonnes goes (well, about one-fifth of it).

What’s the advice?

We’re more or less where we came in. I take an aspirin, or more usually a paracetamol, when I’ve got a stonking headache. Otherwise I wouldn’t take any kind of pill or supplement unless there is an overwhelming medical case for so doing. And pill-poppers out there might note the findings of Eva Saedder and her pals at Aarhus University that the single, strongest independent risk factor for drug-induced serious adverse events is the number of drugs that the patient is taking.


Rothwell, P. et al. (2012). Short-term effects of daily aspirin on cancer incidence, mortality, and non-vascular death: analysis of the time course of risks and benefits in 51 randomised controlled trials, Lancet DOI:1016/S0140-6736(11)61720-0

Rothwell P. et al. (2012). Effect of daily aspirin on risk of cancer metastasis: a study of incident cancers during randomised controlled trial, Lancet DOI:1016/S0140-6736(12)60209-8

Lancet editorial on Rothwell et al. 2011.

Algra, A. and Rothwell, P. (2012). Effects of regular aspirin on long-term cancer incidence and metastasis: a systematic comparison of evidence from observational studies versus randomised trials, Lancet Oncology DOI:10.1016/S1470-2045(12)70112-2.

Frouws M et al. Aspirin and gastro intestinal malignancies; improved survival not only in colorectal cancer? Conference abstract. European Cancer Congress 2015

Press release: Post diagnosis aspirin improves survival in all gastrointestinal cancers. The European Cancer Congress 2015. September 23 2015

Cuzick J, Thorat MA, Bosetti C, et al. Estimates of benefits and harms of prophylactic use of aspirin in the general population. Annals of Oncology. Published online August 5 2014

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Draft Recommendation Statement: Aspirin to Prevent Cardiovascular Disease and Cancer

Saedder, E.A. et al. (2015). Number of drugs most frequently found to be independent risk factors for serious adverse reactions: a systematic literature review. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 80, 808–817.


Dennis’s Pet Menace

As it happened, I’d already agreed to appear on Jeremy Sallis’ Lunchtime Live Show on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire – the plan being just to chat about cancery topics that might be of interest to listeners. Which would have been fine – if only The World Health Organization had left us in peace. But of course they chose last Tuesday to publish their lengthy cogitations on the subject of whether meat is bad for us – i.e. causes cancer.

Cue Press extremism: prime example The Times, quite predictably – they really aren’t great on biomedical science – who chucked kerosene on the barbie with the headline ‘Processed meats blamed for thousands of cancer deaths a year’.

But – to precise facts – and strictly it’s The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), that has ‘evaluated the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat.’

But hang on … haven’t we been here before?

Indeed we have. As long ago as January 2012 in these pages we commented on the evidence that processed meat can cause pancreatic cancer and in May of the same year we reviewed the cogitations of the Harvard School of Public Health’s 28 year study of 120,000 people that concluded eating red meat contributes to cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. To be fair, that history partially reflects why the WHO Working Group of 22 experts from 10 countries have taken so long to go public: they reviewed no fewer than 800 epidemiological studies! However, as the most frequent target for study was colorectal (bowel) cancer, that was the focus of their report released on 26th October 2015.

So what are we talking about?

Red meat, which means any unprocessed mammalian muscle meat, e.g., beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse or goat meat, that we usually cook before eating.

Processed meat: any meat not eaten fresh that has been salted, cured, smoked or whatever and commonly treated with chemicals to enhance flavour and colour and to prevent the growth of bacteria.

What did they say?

Processed meat is now classified as carcinogenic to humans – that is it goes into the top group (Group 1) of agents that cause cancer.

Red meat is probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A). Group 2B is for things that are possibly carcinogenic to humans.


Because 12 of the 18 studies they reviewed showed a link between consumption of processed meat and bowel cancer and because it’s known that agents commonly added to processed meat (nitrates and nitrites) can, when we eat them, turn into chemicals that can directly damage DNA, i.e. cause mutations and hence promote cancers.

For red meat 7 out of 15 studies showed positive associations of high versus low consumption with bowel cancer and there is strong mechanistic evidence for a carcinogenic effect i.e. when meat is cooked genotoxic (i.e. DNA-damaging) chemicals can be generated. They put red meat in the probably group because several of the studies that the Working Group couldn’t fault – and therefore couldn’t leave out – showed no association.

Stop woffling

My laptop likes to turn ‘woffling’ into ‘wolfing’. Maybe it’s trying to tell me something.

But is The WHO trying to tell us something specific about wolfing? To be fair, they have a go by estimating that every 50 gram portion of processed meat (say a couple of slices of bacon) eaten daily increases the risk of bowel cancer by about 18%. For red meat the data ‘suggest’ that the risk of bowel cancer could increase by 17% for every 100 gram portion eaten daily.

And what might that mean?

In the UK about 6 people in 100 get bowel cancer: if you take The WHO maximum estimate and have everyone eat 50 grams of processed meat every day of their lives such that 18% more of them would get bowel cancer, the upshot would be 7 people in 100 rather than 6. So it’s a small rise in a relatively small risk.

As the report points out, the Global Burden of Disease Project reckons diets high in processed meat cause about 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide and, if the reported associations hold up, the figure for red meat would be 50,000. Compare those figures with smoking that increases the risk of lung cancer by 20-fold and The WHO’s estimate of up to 6 million cancer deaths per year globally caused by tobacco use and 600,000 per year by alcohol consumption.

All of which suggests that it isn’t very helpful to lump meat eating, tobacco and asbestos in the same cancer-causing category and that The WHO could do worse than come up with a new classification system.

And the message?

Unchanged. Remember mankind evolved into the most successful species on the planet as a meat eater. As the advert used to say: It looks good, it tastes good and by golly it does you good – not least as a source of protein, vitamins and other nutrients. Do some exercise and eat a balanced diet – just in case you’ve forgotten, that means limit the amount of red meat (The WHO suggests no more than 30 grams a day for men, 25 g for women) so try fish, poultry, etc. Stick with the ‘good carbs’ (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, etc.), cut out the ‘bad’ (sugar – see Biting the Bitter Bullet), eat fishy fats not saturated fats and, to end on a technical note, don’t pig out.


‘The Divine Swine’ Castelnuovo Rangone, Italy

Meanwhile back on the Beeb

When the meat story broke I was a bit concerned that we might end up spending the whole of Lunchtime Live on how many bangers are lethal – especially as we were taking calls from listeners. Just in case things became a bit myopic I had Rasher up my sleeve. Rasher, you may recall, was Dennis the Menace‘s pet pig (in the The Beano‘s comic strip) who had a brother (Hamlet), a sister (Virginia Ham) and various other porky rellos. To bring it up to date we’d have introduced Sam Salami and Frank Furter and, of course, Rasher’s grandfather who was the model for the bronze statue named ‘The Divine Swine’ to be found in the little town of Castelnuovo Rangone in Pig Valley, Italy, the home of Parma ham.

But I shouldn’t have worried. All was well in the hands of Jeremy Sallis who, being a brilliant host, ensured that we mainly chatted about meatier matters than what to have for breakfast.


Press release: IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat.

Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat.

Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. Published online October 26, 2015

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.

Wonder of the World

Welcome back from our holidays on which, we trust, you had as much fun reading the four refresher pieces as I had writing them. Utter nonsense, of course. I’ve never found writing to be an orgasmic activity but, as they say about cod liver oil, it is good for you. However, whilst we were all improving ourselves on our deck-chairs and sun-loungers, the Tide of Science was waiting for no man: the waves of cancer biology have obliterated our sand castles and are fast approaching our toes. So let’s get on – albeit doing our best to make the segue from vacation to vocation as seamless as possible …..

So, on the subject of holidays, newspapers and magazines rather like the theme of ‘places to visit before you die’ – which is OK in that the world is wonderful and we should appreciate it. But there’s a problem in that one of the modern wonders is being able to see magnificent photos and movies of every far-flung nook, cranny and creature without leaving our sofa. So when we finally do get off our rear ends and chug past the Statue of Liberty on the Staten Island Ferry, zoom into Sydney or rock up to the Taj Mahal, the reaction is likely to be ‘That’s nice: looks just like on tv. Where next?’

Fortunately, being blasé has its limits. The only time I’ve made it to the Grand Canyon the mid-winter sun highlighted the colours of the rock striations so they were breathtaking in a way no photograph could quite capture. In the same vein, everyone should take the Trans-Siberian Railway we’re often told. And so you should but not because you will see houses and churches, rivers and trees that you can’t find on the Internet but because only borne by the train do you begin to sense the immensity of Mother Russia. The fact that the scenery is almost entirely birch trees minimizes distraction: all you can do is contemplate vastness – and the harshness that brings – an unvarying obbligato to Russian life.

A Provodnitsa looking after one of her passengers on The Trans-Siberian Railway

A Provodnitsa looking after one of her passengers on The Trans-Siberian Railway

The thrice-weekly freight at Grand Canyon Station, circa 1970

The thrice-weekly freight at Grand Canyon Station, circa 1970







Not Forgetting

All of which brings us to something else that is also truly a wonder of the world – cancer. If it seems a trifle weird to describe thus what’s usually classed as one of man’s greatest blights, consider this. The drive to control cancer has generated research on a scale unmatched in any other field of science. One upshot, not necessarily at the top of the list, is that we now have a breathtakingly detailed picture of the astonishing adaptability of life  – that is of our genetic material, DNA, and how its calisthenics can promote the most incredible behaviour on the part of individual cells. It’s true, you might point out, that we can see this by simply looking at the living world around us. The power of DNA to carry, in effect, limitless information produces the infinite cellular variety underpinning the staggering range of life that has evolved on earth. {Did you spot just the other day that a school field trip discovered 13 new species of spider in Queensland – yes, thirteen – inevitably headlined by The Sun as Creepy Hauly}

In the new world

But in focusing on cancers – what happens at the molecular level as they develop and how they evade our attempts to control them – the fine detail of this nigh-on incomprehensible power has been revealed as in no other way.

You’ll know what’s coming: the biggest single boost to this unveiling has been the arrival in the twenty-first century of methods for sequencing DNA and identifying which genes are expressed in cells at any given time. I know: in umpteen blogs I’ve gone on about its awe-inspiring power – but it is stunning and we’re at that stage when new developments leave one gasping almost on a monthly basis. The point here is that it’s not that the science keeps getting turned on its head. Far from it: the message remains that cells pick up changes to their DNA and, with time, these cumulative effects may drive them to make more of themselves than they should.

That’s cancer. But what is fantastic is the molecular detail that the ’omics revolution continues to lay bare. And that’s important because, as we have come to recognize that every cancer is unique, ideally we need to provide specifically tailored treatments, and we can only think of doing that when we know all the facts – even if taking them in demands a good deal of lying down in darkened rooms!

You could think of the fine molecular detail of cancers as corresponding to musical ornaments – flourishes that don’t change the overall tune but without which the piece would be unrecognizable. These include trills and turns – and all musicians will know their appoggiaturas from their acciaccaturas. They’re tiny embellishments – but just try removing them from almost any piece of music.

Lapping at your toes

So let’s look at three recent papers that have used these fabulous methods to unveil as never before the life history of cancers. The first is another masterful offering from The Sanger Institute on breast cancer: an in-depth analysis of 12 patients in which each tumor was sampled from 8 different locations. In the main the mutation patterns differed between regions of the same tumour. They extended this by looking at samples from four patients with multi-focal disease (‘foci’ being small clumps of tumour cells). As expected, individual foci turned out to be clearly genetically related to their neighbours but they also had many ‘private mutations’ – a term usually meaning a mutation found only in a single family or a small population. Here the ‘family’ are individual foci that must have arisen from a common ancestor, and you could think of them as a cellular diaspora – a localised spreading – which makes them a kind of metastasis. Quite often the mutations acquired in these focal sub-clones included major ‘driver’ genes (e.g., P53, PIK3CA and BRCA2). In general such potent mutations tend to be early events but in these foci they’ve appeared relatively late in tumour development. This doesn’t upend our basic picture: it’s just another example of ‘anything goes’ in cancer – but it does make the point that identifying therapeutic targets requires high-depth sequencing to track how individual cancers have evolved through continual acquisition of new mutations and the expansion of individual clones.

The authors used ‘coxcomb’ plots to portray these goings-on but they are quite tricky to make head or tail of. So, to avoid detail overload, I’ve converted some into genetic wallpaper, the non-repeating patterns illustrating the breathtaking variety that has evolved.

Wallpaper jpegDecorative DNA. The discs are ‘coxcomb’ plots – a variant of a pie chart. Here the colours and the wedge sizes represent mutations in different regions of four primary breast tumours. Every disc is different so that the message from this genetic wallpaper is of mutational variation not only between cancers but across the different samples taken from a single tumour. I trust that Lucy Yates, Peter Campbell and their colleagues will not be too upset at my turning their work into art (and greatly abbreviating the story): you can read the original in all its wondrous glory in Nature Medicine 21, 751–759.

The first person to come up with this very graphic way of conveying information was Florence Nightingale who, whilst working in Turkey during the Crimean War, realized that soldiers were dying in the hospitals not only from their wounds but, in much greater numbers, from preventable causes including infections, malnutrition and poor sanitation. Her meticulous recording and original presentation of hospital death tolls made her a pioneer in applied statistics and established the importance of sanitation in hospitals.

Something for the gentlemen

Two equally powerful onslaughts from Gunes Gundem, Peter Campbell and their colleagues at The Sanger Institute (again!) and Dan Robinson and pals from the University of Michigan Medical School have revealed the corresponding molecular detail of prostate cancer. Here too the picture is of each region of a tumour being unique in DNA terms. Moreover, they showed that metastasis-to-metastasis spread was common, either through the seeding of single clones or by the transfer of multiple tumour clones between metastatic sites.

Even that miserable old sod Lenin might have brightened at such fabulous science, before reverting to Eeyore mode with the inevitable “What’s to be done?” But it’s a good question. For example, as a general strategy should we try to kill the bulk of the tumour cells or aim for clones that, although small, carry very potent mutations.

Aside from the basic science, there is one quite bright ray of sunshine: about 90% of the mutations linked with the spread of prostate cancer are potentially treatable with existing drugs. And that really is encouraging, given that the disease kills 11,000 in the UK and over 30,000 in the USA every year.

prostate dogWe might also be heartened by the skills of German Shepherd dogs that can, apparently, be persuaded to apply one of their favourite pastimes – sniffing – to the detection of prostate cancer. Point them at a urine sample and 90% of the time they come up with the right answer. Given the well-known unreliability of the prostate-specific antigen blood test for prostate cancer, it’s nice to think that man’s best friend is on the job.


Yates, L.R., et al. (2015). Subclonal diversification of primary breast cancer revealed by multiregion sequencing. Nature Medicine 21, 751–759.

Robinson, D., et al. (2015). Integrative Clinical Genomics of Advanced Prostate Cancer. Cell 161, 1215–1228.

Gundem, G., et al. (2015). The evolutionary history of lethal metastatic prostate cancer. ICGC Prostate UK Group (2015). Nature 520, 353–357.

Holiday Reading (4) – Can We Make Resistance Futile?

For those with a fondness for happy endings we should note that, despite the shortcomings of available drugs, the prospects for patients with a range of cancers have increased significantly over the latter part of the twentieth century. The overall 5-year survival rate for white Americans diagnosed between 1996 and 2004 with breast cancer was 91%; for prostate cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma the figures were 99% and 66%, respectively. These figures are part of a long-term trend of increasingly effective cancer treatment and there is no doubt that the advances in chemotherapy summarised in the earlier Holiday Readings are contributory factor. Nonetheless, the precise contribution of drug treatments remains controversial and impossible to disentangle quantitatively from other significant factors, notably earlier detection and improved surgical and radiotherapeutic methods.

Peering into the future there is no question that the gradual introduction of new anti-cancer drugs will continue and that those coming into use will be more specific and therefore less unpleasant to use. By developing combinations of drugs that can simultaneously poke the blancmange at several points it may be possible to confront tumor cells with a multiple challenge that even their nimbleness can’t evade, thereby eliminating the problem of drug resistance. Perhaps, therefore, in 20 years time we will have a drug cabinet sufficiently well stocked with cocktails that the major cancers can be tackled at key stages in their evolution, as defined by their genetic signature.

However, on the cautionary side we should note that in the limited number of studies thus far the effect of drug combinations on remission times has not been startling, being measured in months rather than years or decades. Having noted the durability of cancer cells we should not be surprised by this and the concern, of course, is that, however ingenious our efforts to develop drug cocktails, we may always come second to the adaptability of nature.

Equally perturbing is the fact that over 90% of cancer deaths arise from primary tumors spreading to other sites around the body. For this phenomenon, called metastasis, there are currently very few treatment options available and the magnitude of this problem is reflected in the fact that for metastatic breast cancer there has been little change in the survival rates over the past forty years.

Metastasis therefore remains one of the key cancer challenges. It’s over 125 years since the London physician Stepen Paget asked the critical question: ‘What is it that allows tumour cells to spread around the body?’ and it’s a daunting fact that only very recently have we made much progress towards an answer – and thus perhaps a way of controlling it. To the fore in this pursuit has been David Lyden and his colleagues at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. Their most astonishing finding is that cells in the primary tumour release messengers into the circulation and these, in effect, tag what will become landing points for wandering cells. Astonishing because it means that these sites are determined before any tumour cells actually set foot outside the confines of the primary tumour. Lyden has christened this ‘bookmarking’ cancer. That is a quite remarkable finding – but, as ever in science, it merely shifts the question to ‘OK but what’s the messenger?’

A ray of sunshine

It might appear somewhat churlish, especially after all that funding, to end on a note of defeatist gloom so let’s finish with my ray of sunshine that represents a radical approach to the problem. It relies on the fact that small numbers of cells break away from tumors and pass into the circulation. In addition, tumours can release both DNA and small sacs – like little cells – that contain DNA, proteins and RNAs (nucleic acids closely related to DNA). These small, secreted vesicles are called exosomes – a special form of messengers, communicating with other cells by fusing to them. By transferring molecules between cells, exosomes may play a role in mediating the immune response and they are now recognized as key regulators of tumour growth and metastasis.

Step forward Lyden and friends once more who have just shown in a mouse model of pancreatic cancer that exosomes found their way to the liver during the tumour’s earliest stages. Exosomes are taken up by some of the liver cells and this sets off a chain of cell-to-cell signals that eventually cause the accumulation of a kind of molecular glue (fibronectin). This is the critical ingredient in a microenvironment that attracts tumour cells and promotes their growth as a metastasis (secondary growth). So you can think of exosomes as a kind of environmental educator.

Exosome Fig

Exosomes released from primary tumours can mark a niche for metastasis.

The small sacs of goodies called exosomes are carried to the liver where they fuse with some cells, setting off a chain reaction that produces a sticky protein – fibronectin – a kind of glue for immune cells and tumour cells. (from Costa-Silva, B., Lyden, D. et al., Nature Cell Biology 17, 816–826, 2015).

The recent, remarkable technical advances that permit the isolation of exosomes also make it possible to fish out circulating tumour cells and tumour DNA from a mere teaspoonful of blood.

Circulating tumour cells have already been used to monitor patient responses to chemotherapy – when a treatment works the numbers drop: a gradual rise is the earliest indicator of the treatment failing. Even more exciting, this approach offers the possibility of detecting the presence of cancers years, perhaps decades, earlier than can presently be achieved. Coupling this to the capacity to sequence the DNA of the isolated cells to yield a genetic signature of the individual tumor can provide the basis for drug treatment. There are still considerable reservations attached to this approach but if it does drastically shift the stage at which we can detect tumors it may also transpire that their more naïve forms, in which fewer mutations have accumulated, are more susceptible to inhibitory drugs. If that were to be the case then even our currently rather bare, though slowly expanding, drug cabinet may turn out to be quite powerful.

The Hay Festival

According to the Hay Festival  a recording of my talk ‘Demystifying Cancer’ on Wednesday 28th May should be available on their web site shortly and it can also be heard on the university site. However, I thought it might be helpful to post a version, not least for the for the rather breathless lady who arrived at the book signing session apologising for missing the lecture because she’d got stuck in mud. So for her and perhaps for many others I had the privilege of chatting to afterwards, read on …

 The Amazing World of Cells, Molecules … and CancerOpening pic

One of the biggest influences on my early years was the composer and conductor Antony Hopkins, who died a few days ago. Most of what I knew about music by the time I was 15 came from his wonderfully clear dissections of compositions in the series Talking About Music broadcast by the BBC Third Programme. When he was axed by the Beeb in 1992 for being ‘too elitist’ – yes, they talked that sort of drivel even then – Hopkins might have wished he’d been a biologist. After all, biology must be the easiest subject in the world to talk about. Your audience is hooked from the outset because they know it’s about them – if not directly then because all living things on the planet are interlinked – so even the BBC would struggle to make an ‘elitism’ charge stick. They know too that it’s beautiful, astonishing and often funny – both from what they see around them and also, of course, courtesy of David Attenborough. So it’s not a surprise when you show them that the micro-world of cells and molecules is every bit as wonderful.

The secret of life

What does come as a bit of a shock to most non-scientists is when you explain the secret of life. No, that’s not handing round pots of an immortalization elixir – much better, it’s outlining what’s sometimes rather ponderously called the central dogma of molecular biology – the fact that our genetic material (aka DNA) is made from only four basic units (most easily remembered by their initials: A, C, G and T – humans have over three thousand million of these stuck together). This is our ‘genome’ and the ‘genetic code’ enshrined in the DNA sequence makes us what we are – with small variations giving rise to the differences between individuals. The genetic code carries instructions for glueing together another set of small chemicals to make proteins. There are 20 of these (amino acids) and they can be assembled in any order to make proteins that can be thousands or even tens of thousands of amino acids long. These assemblies fold up into 3D shapes that give them specific activities. Proteins make living things what they are – they’re ‘the machines of life’ – and their infinite variety is responsible for all the different species to have appeared on earth. Can the basis of life really be so simple?

The paradox of cancer

Turning to cancer, a three word definition of ‘cells behaving badly’ would do fine. A more scientific version would be ‘cells proliferating abnormally.’ That is, cells reproducing either when they shouldn’t, or more rapidly than normal, or doing so in the wrong place. The cause of this unfriendly behavior is damaged DNA, that is, alteration in the genetic code – any such change being a ‘mutation’. If a mutation affects a protein so that it becomes, say, hyperactive at making cells proliferate (i.e. dividing to make more cells), you have a potential cancer ‘driver’. So at heart cancer’s very simple: it’s driven by mutations in DNA that affect proteins controlling proliferation. That’s true even of the 20% or so of cancers caused by chronic infection – because that provokes inflammation, which in turn leads to DNA damage.

The complexity of cancer arises because, in contrast to several thousand other genetic diseases in which just a single gene is abnormal (e.g., cystic fibrosis), tumour cells accumulate lots of mutations. Within this genetic mayhem, relatively small groups of potent mutations (half a dozen or so) emerge that do the ‘driving’. Though only a few ‘driver mutations’ are required, an almost limitless number of combinations can arise.

Accumulating mutations takes time, which is why cancers are predominantly diseases of old age. Even so, we should be aware that life is a game of genetic roulette in which each individual has to deal with the dice thrown by their parents. The genetic cards we’re dealt at birth may combine with mutations that we pick up all the time (due to radiation from the sun and the ground, from some foods and as a result of chemical reactions going on inside us) to cause cancers and, albeit rarely, in unlucky individuals these can arise at an early age. However, aside from what Mother Nature endows, humans are prone to giving things a helping hand through self-destructive life-style choices – the major culprits, of course, being tobacco, alcohol and poor diets, the latter being linked to becoming overweight and obese. Despite these appalling habits we’re living longer (twice as long as at the beginning of the twentieth century) which means that cancer incidence will inevitably rise as we have more time to pick up the necessary mutations. Nevertheless, if we could ban cigarettes, drastically reduce alcohol consumption and eat sensibly we could reduce the incidence of cancers by well over a half.

How are we doing?

Some readers may recall that forty-odd years ago in 1971 President Nixon famously committed the intellectual and technological might of the USA to a ‘War on Cancer’ saying, in effect, let’s give the boffins pots of money to sort it out pronto. Amazing discoveries and improved treatments have emerged in the wake of that dramatic challenge (not all from Uncle Sam, by the way!) but, had we used the first grant money to make a time machine from which we were able to report back that in 2013 nearly six hundred thousand Americans died from cancer, that the global death toll was over eight million people a year and will rise to more than 13 million by 2030 (according to the Union for International Cancer Control), rather less cash might subsequently have been doled out. Don’t get me wrong: Tricky Dicky was spot on to do what he did and scientists are wonderful – clever, dedicated, incredibly hard-working, totally uninterested in personal gain and almost always handsome and charming. But the point here is that, well, sometimes scientific questions are a little bit more difficult than they look.

Notwithstanding, there have been fantastic advances. The five year survival rates for breast and prostate cancers have gone from below 50% to around 90% – improvements to which many factors have contributed including greater public awareness (increasing the take-up of screening services), improved surgical and radiology methods and, of course, new drugs. But for all the inspiration, perspiration and fiscal lubrication, cancer still kills over one third of all people in what we like to refer to as the “developed” world, globally breast cancer killed over half a million in 2012 and for many types of cancer almost no impact has been made on the survival figures. In the light of that rather gloomy summary we might ask whether there is any light at the end of the tunnel.

The Greatest Revolution

From one perspective it’s surprising we’ve made much progress at all because until just a few years ago we had little idea about the molecular events that drive cancers and most of the advances in drug treatment have come about empirically, as the scientists say – in plain language by trial and error. But in 2003 there occurred one of the great moments in science – arguably the most influential event in the entire history of medical science – the unveiling of the first complete DNA sequence of a human genome. This was the product of a miraculous feat of international collaboration called The Human Genome Project that determined the order of the four units (A, C, G and T) that make up human DNA (i.e. the sequence). Set up in 1990, the project was completed by 2003, two years ahead of schedule and under budget.

If the human genome project was one of the most sensational triumphs in the history of science what has happened in the ensuing 10 years is perhaps even more dazzling. Quite breathtaking technical advances now mean that DNA can be sequenced on a truly industrial scale and it is possible to obtain the complete sequence of a human genome in a day or so at a cost of about $1,000.

These developments represent the greatest revolution because they are already having an impact on every facet of biological science: food production, microbiology and pesticides, biofuels – and medicine. But no field has been more dramatically affected by this technological broadside than cancer and already thousands of genomes have been sequenced from a wide range of tumours. The most striking result has been to reveal the full detail of the astonishing genetic mayhem that characterizes cancer cells. Tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of mutations featuring every kind of molecular gymnastics imaginable occur in a typical tumour cell, creating a landscape of stunning complexity. At first sight this makes the therapeutic challenge seem daunting, but all may not be lost because the vast majority of this genetic damage plays no role in cancer development (they’re ‘passenger’ mutations) and the power of sequencing now means they can be sifted from the much smaller hand of ‘driver’ mutations. From this distillation have emerged sets of ‘mutational signatures’ for most of the major types of cancers. This is a seismic shift from the traditional method of assessing tumours – looking directly at the cells after treating them with markers to highlight particular features – and this genetic approach, providing for the first time a rigorous molecular basis for classifying tumours, is already affecting clinical practice through its prognostic potential and informing decisions about treatment.

A new era

One of the first applications of genomics to cancer, was undertaken by a group at The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge (where the UK part of the Human Genome Project had been carried out), who screened samples of the skin cancer known as malignant melanoma. This is now the fifth most common UK cancer – in young people (aged 15 to 34) it’s the second most common – and it killed over 2,200 in 2012. Remarkably, about half the tumours were found to have a hyperactivating mutation in a gene called BRAF, the effect being to switch on a signal pathway so that it drives cell proliferation continuously. It was a remarkable finding because up until then virtually nothing was known about the molecular biology of this cancer. Even more amazingly, within a few years it had lead to the development of drugs that caused substantial regression of melanomas that had spread to secondary sites (metastasized).

This was an early example of what has become known as personalized medicine – the concept that molecular analysis will permit treatment regimens to be tailored to the stage of development of an individual’s cancer. And maybe, at some distant time, the era of personalized medicine will truly come about. At the moment, however, we have very few drugs that are specific for cancer cells – and even when drugs work initially, patients almost invariably relapse as tumours become resistant and the cancer returns – one of the major challenges for cancer biology.

It behoves us therefore to think laterally, of impersonal medicine if you like, and one alternative approach to trying to hit the almost limitless range of targets revealed by genomics is to ask: do tumour cells have a molecular jugular – a master regulator through which all the signals telling it to proliferate have to pass. There’s an obvious candidate – a protein called MYC that is essential for cells to proliferate. The problem with stopping MYC working is that humans make about one million new cells a second, just to maintain the status quo – so informed opinion says that blocking MYC will kill so many cells the animal will die – which would certainly fix cancer but not quite in the way we’re aiming for. Astoundingly, it turns out in mice at least it doesn’t work like that. Normal cells tolerate attenuation of MYC activity pretty well but the tumour cells die. What a result!! We should, of course, bear in mind that the highway of cancer therapy is littered with successful mouse treatments that simply didn’t work in us – but maybe this time we’ll get lucky.

An Achilles’ heel?

In defining cancers we noted the possibility that tumour cells might proliferate in the wrong place. So important is this capacity that most cancer patients die as a result of tumour cells spreading around the body and founding secondary colonies at new sites – a phenomenon called metastasis. Well over 100 years ago a clever London physician by the name of Stephen Paget drew a parallel between the growth of tumours and plants: ‘When a plant goes to seed, its seeds are carried in all directions; but they can only live and grow if they fall on congenial soil.’ From this emerged the “seed and soil” theory as at least a step to explaining metastasis. Thus have things languished until very recent findings have begun to lift the metastatic veil. Quite unexpectedly, in mouse models, primary tumours dispatch chemical messengers into the blood stream long before any of their cells set sail. These protein news-bearers essentially tag a landing site within the circulatory system on which the tumour cells touch down. Which sites are tagged depends on the type of tumour – consistent with the fact that human cancers show different preferences in metastatic targets.

These revelations have been matched by stunning new video methods that permit tumour cells to be tracked inside live mice. For the first time this has shone a light on the mystery of how tumour cells get into the circulation – the first step in metastasis. Astonishingly tumour cells attach themselves to a type of normal cell, macrophages, whose usual job is to engulf and digest cellular debris and bugs. The upshot of this embrace is that the macrophages cause the cells that line blood vessels to lose contact with each other, creating gaps in the vessel wall through which tumour cells squeeze to make their escape. This extraordinary hijacking has prognostic value and is being used to develop a test for the risk of metastasis in breast cancers.

The very fact that cancers manifest their most devastating effects by spreading to other sites may lay bare an Achilles’ heel. Other remarkable technical developments mean that it’s now possible to fish out cancer cells (or DNA they’ve released) from a teaspoonful of circulating 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 cells for every cubic millimeter of blood). Coupling this to genome sequencing has already permitted the response of patients to drug therapy to be monitored but an even more exciting prospect is that through these methods we may be moving towards cancer detection perhaps years earlier than is possible by current techniques.

As we’ve seen, practically every aspect of cancer biology is now dominated by genomics. Last picIt’s so trendy that anyone can join in. Songs have been written about DNA and you can even make a musical of your own genetic code, French physicist Joel Sternheimer having come up with a new genre – protein music – in which sequence information is converted to musical notes. Antony Hopkins, ever receptive to new ideas, would have been enthralled and, with characteristic enthusiasm, been only too happy to devote an episode of Talking About Music to making tunes from nature.

A Refresher from the BBC

Regular readers will probably feel they know all this stuff but if you’re interested in a spirited and wide-ranging conversation about cancer with the wonderful Jeremy Vine on his BBC Radio 2 show yesterday you can find it at: about 1 hour 10 min from the beginning.

BBC Radio 4As ever, any arising thoughts, questions or comments appreciated – apart, of course, from the below the belt: “Judging by the photo it’s a good job it was radio not t.v.”


Spinning Out In Control

In Signs of Resistance and Seeing the Invisible we emphasized two things well known to the interested, namely that most cancer deaths occur because cells spread from the original (primary) to secondary sites (metastases) where they are very difficult to treat, and that this places massive importance on early detection. Many will also be familiar with the currently used methods for tumor detection – X-ray based imaging (as in mammography and CT scans) and PET that detects injected radioactive tracers. The problem is that these are not sensitive enough to detect growths smaller than about 1 cm in diameter – and by that point there are several hundred million cells in the tumor and some may already have metastasized.

Tumor cells spread around the body by detaching from the primary and getting into the circulatory system and it’s beginning to look as though quite literally tapping into the circulation may revolutionize cancer detection. Seeing the Invisible showed how silicon chip technology can be used to retrieve circulating tumor cells (CTCs) by getting them to stick to targets anchored in a flow cell. Although this is hugely promising, another very recent advance may be even more effective. This uses centrifugal force to separate cells in blood on the basis of their size – that’s the one that pushes outwards on objects rotating about an axis. Because force is proportional to mass and tumor cells are larger than red blood cells and most white cells, this effect can be used to extract CTCs from fluid being pumped around a spiral microchannel. The spirals are made from a silicon-based polymer (the same stuff that’s used for contact lenses) stuck on glass slides and they have two outlet channels. Their shape creates two-counter rotating vortices in the fluid that exert a drag force on the cells so that bigger (heavier) tumor cells can be selectively directed to one of the outlets. Typically red blood cells are about 6 microns (one-millionth of a metre), white cells 8-14 microns and CTCs 16-25 microns in diameter.

The vortices are named after a Cambridge chappie, William Dean, who worked on flow patterns in curved pipes and channels and you can look up Dean vortices on the internet for images of these in action.

MCF7s right, rest left

In this picture of the two exits from a spiral microchannel breast cancer cells are carried to the right (yellow arrows) whilst all the other types of blood cell funnel left.

This method appears to be remarkably efficient in that over 90% of tumor cells (10-100 cells per ml of blood) can be separated from 99.99% of red cells (5,000,000 per ml) and 99.6% of white cells (10,000 per ml).


Hou, H.W., Warkiani, M. E., Khoo, B.L., Li, Z.R., Soo, R.A., Tan, D.S.-W., Lim, W.-T., Bhagat, A.A.S., and Lim, C.T. (2013). Isolation and retrieval of circulating tumor cells using centrifugal forces. Scientific Reports 3, Article Number: 1259. DOI: 10.1038/srep01259.

Bhagat, A.A.S. et al., 15th International Conference on Miniaturized Systems for Chemistry and Life Sciences October 2-6, 2011, Seattle, Washington, USA