One More Small Step


Back in the nineteenth century a chap called Augustus De Morgan came up with a set of laws that, when explained in English, sound like the lyrics of a Flanders & Swann song. Opaque to non-maths nerds they may be but they helped to build the mathematics of logic, so next time you meet AND / OR gates in electronics, spare him a thought.

In fact Augustus is rare — maybe unique — among mathematicians in that he’s not completely forgotten, for it was he who penned the lines:

Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so, 
ad infinitum.

Given that we now know there’s over 2,500 species of fleas ranging in size from tiny to nearly one centimeter long, it may be literally true. But here, for once, the truth doesn’t matter. It’s a silly rhyme but nonsense verse it is not for it could well serve as a motto for biology because it really captures the essential truth of life: the exquisite choreography of living systems by which incomprehensible numbers of interactions come together to make them work.

Human fleas. Don’t worry: you’ll know if you have them.

Unbidden, De Morgan’s ditty came into my head as I was reading the latest research paper from David Lyden’s group, which he very kindly sent me ahead of publication this week. Avid readers will know the name for we have devoted several episodes (Keeping Cancer Catatonic, Scattering the Bad Seed and Holiday Reading (4) – Can We Make Resistance Futile) to the discoveries of his group in tackling one of the key questions in cancer — namely, how do tumour cells find their targets when they spread around the body? Key because it is this process of ‘metastasis’ that causes most (over 90%) of cancer deaths and if we knew how it worked maybe we could block it.

A succinct summary of those already condensed episodes would be: (1) cells in primary tumours release ‘messengers’ into the circulation that ‘tag’ metastatic sites before any cells actually leave the tumour, (2) the messengers that do the site-tagging are small sacs — mini cells — called exosomes, and (3) they find specific addresses by carrying protein labels (integrins) that home in to different organs — we represented that in the form of a tube train map in Lethal ZIP codes that pulled the whole story together.

The next small step

Now what the folks from Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, Sloan Kettering and a host of other places have done is adapt a flow system to look more closely at exosomes.

Separating small bodies. Particles are injected into a flowing liquid (left) and cross flow at right angles through a membrane (bottom) permits separation on the basis of effective size (called asymmetrical flow field-flow fractionation).

They found that a wide variety of tumour cell types secrete two distinct populations of exosomes — small (60-80 nanometres diameter) and large (90-120 nm). What’s more they found a third type of nanoparticle, smaller than exosomes (less than 50 nm) and without a membrane — so it’s a kind of blob of lipids and proteins (a micelle would be a more scientific term) — that they christened exomeres.

Is it real?

A perpetual problem in biology is reproducibility — that is, whether a new finding can be replicated independently by someone else. Or, put more crudely, do I believe this? This is such an important matter that it’s worth a separate blog but for the moment we’re OK because the results in this paper speak for themselves. First, by using electron microscopy, Lyden et al could actually look at what they’d isolated and indeed discerned three distinct nano-populations — which is how they were able to put the size limits on them.

Electron microscopy of (left) the input mixture (pre-fractionation) and separated fractions: exomere, small exosomes and large exosomes released by tumour cells.. Arrows indicate exomeres (red), small exosomes (blue) and large exosomes (green), from Zhang et al. 2018.

But what’s most exciting in terms of the potential of these results is what’s in the packets. Looking at the fats (lipids), proteins and nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) they contained it’s clear that these are three distinct entities — which makes it very likely they have different effects.

Given their previous finding it must have been a great relief when Lyden & Co identified integrin address proteins in the two exosome sub-populations. But what’s really astonishing is the range of proteins born by these little chaps: something like 400 in exomeres, about 1000 in small exosomes and a similar number in the big ones — and the fact that each contained unique sets of proteins. The new guys — exomeres — carry among other proteins, metabolic enzymes so it’s possible that when they deliver their cargo it might be able to change the metabolic profile of its target. That could be important as we know such changes happen in cancer.

It’s a bewildering picture and working out even the basics of what these little guys do and how it influences cancer is, as we say, challenging. But I think I know a good man for the job!

Augustus De Morgan looking down.

Mathematicians have a bit of a tendency to look down on us experimentalists thrashing around in the undergrowth and I suspect that up in the celestial library, as old Augustus De Morgan thumbed through this latest paper, a slight smile might have come over his face and he could have been heard to murmur: “See, I told you.”


Zhang, H. et al. (2018). Identification of distinct nanoparticles and subsets of extracellular vesicles by asymmetric flow field-flow fractionation. Nature Cell Biology 20, 332–343. doi:10.1038/s41556-018-0040-4


Taking a Swiss Army Knife to Cancer

Murder is easy. You just need a weapon and a victim. And, I guess the police would add, opportunity. I hasten to point out that’s an observational note rather than an autobiographical aside. It’s relevant here because treating cancer is intentional homicide on a grand scale – the slaughter of millions of tumour cells. For individuals we cannot say whether the perfect murder is possible – how would we know – but on the mass scale history shows that even the most efficient machines for genocide have been, fortunately, less than perfect. In other words through incredible adaptability, ingenuity, determination and sheer will power, some folk will survive even the most extreme efforts of their fellow men to exterminate them. Cancers tend to mirror their carriers. With only rare exceptions, whatever we throw at them in attempts to eliminate their unwelcome presence, some of the little blighters will dodge the bullets, take a deep breath and start reproducing again. ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ as the American chanteuse Kelly Clarkson has it – though to be fair I think she pinched the line from Nietzsche.

Multiple whammys

For cancer cells dodging extinction requires adaptability: using the flexibility of the human genetic code enshrined in DNA to change the pattern of gene expression or to develop new mutations that short-circuit the effects of drugs – finding many different ways to render useless drugs that worked initially. You might draw a parallel with the idea, correct as it turned out, of the prisoners who staged The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III in World War II that if they initially dug three tunnels simultaneously (Tom, Dick and Harry) the guards might find one but they’d probably not find all three.

An approach increasingly permeating cancer therapy is how to target several escape routes at once – can we at least give the tumour cell a serious headache in the hope that while it’s grappling with a molecular carpet bombing it might be more likely to drop dead. One way of doing this is simply to administer drug combinations and this has met with some success. However, for the most part, agents are not specific for tumour cells and their actions on normal cells give rise to the major problem of side effects.

Step forward Yongjun Liu and colleagues from Shandong University, Jinnan, People’s Republic of China and the sophisticated world of chemistry with efforts to fire a broad-shot that combines different ways of killing tumour cells with at least some degree of specific targeting.

Making the bullets

These chemists are clever chaps but, taken one step at a time, what they’ve done to make a very promising agent is simple. The game is molecular Lego – making a series of separate bits then hooking them together. The trendy name is click chemistry, a term coined in 1998 by Barry Sharpless and colleagues at The Scripps Research Institute, to describe reactions in which large, pre-formed molecules are linked to make even more complex multi-functional structures. You could describe proteins as a product of ‘click chemistry’ as cells join amino acid units to make huge chains – but you wouldn’t as it’s better to keep the name for synthetic reactions that make novel modules.

It might help to recall some school chemistry:

acid + base = salt + water (e.g., HCl + NaOH = NaCl + H2O)

Click chemistry is the same idea but the reactants are large molecules, rather than atoms of hydrogen, chlorine and sodium.

Anti-freeze to anti-cancer in a couple of clicks

The starting point here is remarkably familiar – it’s antifreeze, a chemical added to cooling systems to lower the freezing point of water (e.g., in motor engines). Antifreeze is ethylene glycol (two linked atoms of carbon with hydrogens: HO-CH2-CH2-OH): make a string of these molecules and you have a polymer – poly-ethylene glycol (PEG).

For click chemists it’s easy to tag things on to biologicial molecules, including PEG and most proteins. This study used biotin – a vitamin that works like a molecular glue by sticking strongly to another small molecule called avidin, found in egg white. Avidin can therefore be used to fish for anything tagged with biotin – it simply hooks two biotins together. The protein used here is an antibody that binds to a signaling molecule (VEGFR) present on the surface of most tumour cells and blood vessels. VEGFR helps tumour growth by providing a new blood supply – an effect blocked when the antibody binds to it.

Sounds familiar?

If chains of carbon atoms decorated with hydrogens seem familiar, so they should. They’re fats (the saturated fats you get in cream and butter are very similar to the chains of PEG). As anyone who’s done the washing up knows, fats and water don’t get on (which is why we have detergents). Put them in water and fats huddle together in blobs called micelles – sacs of fat. This gives them a useful property: if you mix something else in the water – a drug for instance – and then add PEG and separate the micelles that form, you’ve got drug trapped in a kind of carrier bag. Often called nanoparticles, these small, molecular bubbles made by chemists are packets of drug ready to be delivered.

Micelle Blog picA sac of poly-ethylene glycol (PEG) with entrapped drug (red dots) tagged in three different ways (Liu et al., 2014).

Addressing the parcel

To turn PEG into a parcel two chemical tricks are needed. The first is to tag PEG with biotin. Now the nanoparticles will pick up VEGFR antibody labeled with avidin – and the antibody label can target the micelles to tumour cells and blood vessels.

Exploding the package

The second trick is the addition of another polymer (a chain of histidine amino acids) that triggers the disassembly of the nanoparticles when they find themselves close to or inside tumour cells – a more acidic environment than the circulation.

Seeing the results

The final twist is to include another modified PEG – this with a chemical group that binds gadolinium when it’s added to the water. Gadolinium is an ion (Gd3+) which shows up brightly in MRI scans – the idea being to highlight where the nanoparticles end up after injection into animals.

Does it work?

These multicomponent nanoparticles resemble a Swiss Army knife – all sorts of gadgets sticking out all over the place: PEG to make sacs that contain a drug, biotin hooked to VEGFR antibody to home in on tumour cells, an acidity sensor so the thing falls apart and releases its content on arrival and a contrast enhancer that shows up where this is happening in an MRI scan.

Injected into mice with liver tumours, these multi-functional nanoparticles do indeed home in on the tumours and their surroundings and drastically reduce tumour growth when they carry the drug sorafenib. Sorafenib is the only agent that has been shown to affect liver cancers, although its effects are brief. Compared to sorafenib alone, these new nanoparticles are about three times more potent – presumably because of their targeted delivery.

Where are we?

This wonderfully clever chemistry will not cure liver cancer. A good result when it reaches human trials would be six months remission by comparison with the current average of two months from treatment with sorafenib alone. But what it does show is that hitting cancers hard in multiple ways at least slows them down. We can only hope that more potent drugs and further ingenuity will progressively extend this capacity. The end is not in sight but brilliant technical advances such as that from Yongjun Liu’s lab may be spotlighting the way ahead.


Yongjun Liu et al., (2014). Multifunctional pH-sensitive polymeric nanoparticles for theranostics evaluated experimentally in cancer. Nanoscale 6, 3231-3242.