Secret Army: More Manoeuvres Revealed


I don’t know about you but I find it difficult to grasp the idea that there are more bugs in my body than there are ‘me’ cells. That is, microorganisms (mostly bacteria) outnumber the aggregate of liver, skin and what-have-you cells. They’re attracted, of course, to the warm, damp surfaces of the cavities in our bodies that are covered by a sticky, mucous membrane, e.g., the mouth, nose and especially the intestines (the gastrointestinal tract).

The story so far

Over the last few years it’s become clear that these co-residents — collectively called the microbiota — are not just free-loaders. They’re critical to our well-being in helping to fight infection by other microrganisms (as we noted in Our Inner Self), they influence our immune system and in the gut they extract the last scraps of nutrients from our diet. So maybe it makes them easier to live with if we keep in mind that we need them every bit as much as they depend on us.

We now know that there are about 2000 different species of bacteria in the human gut (yes, that really is 2,000 different types of bug) and, with all that diversity, it’s not surprising that the total number of genes they carry far exceeds our own complement (by several million to about 20,000). In it’s a small world we noted that obesity causes a switch in the proportions of two major sub-families of bacteria, resulting in a decrease in the number of bug genes. The flip side is that a more diverse bug population (microbiome) is associated with a healthy status. What’s more, shifts of this sort in the microbiota balance can influence cancer development. Even more remarkably, we saw in Hitchhiker Or Driver? That the microbiome may also play a role in the spread of tumours to secondary sites (metastasis).

Time for a deep breath

If all this is going on in the intestines you might well ask “What about the lungs?” — because, and if you didn’t know you might guess, their job of extracting oxygen from the air we inhale means that they are covered with the largest surface area of mucosal tissue in the body. They are literally an open invitation to passing microorganisms — as we all know from the ease with which we pick up infections.

In view of what we know about gut bugs a rather obvious question is “Could the bug community play a role in lung cancer?” It’s a particularly pressing question because not only is lung cancer the major global cause of cancer death but 70% lung cancer patients have bacterial infections and these markedly influence tumour development and patient survival. Tyler Jacks, Chengcheng Jin and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology approached this using a mouse model for lung cancer (in which two mutated genes, Kras and P53 drive tumour formation).

In short they found that germ-free mice (or mice treated with antibiotics) were significantly protected from lung cancer in this model system.

How bacteria can drive lung cancer in mice. Left: scheme of a lung with low levels of bacteria and normal levels of immune system cells. Right: increased levels of bacteria accelerate tumour growth by stimulating the release of chemicals from blood cells that in turn activate cells of the immune system to release other effector molecules that promote tumour growth. The mice were genetically altered to promote lung tumour growth (by mutation of the Kras and P53 genes). In more detail the steps are that the bacteria cause macrophages to release interleukins (IL-1 & IL-23) that stick to a sub-set of T cells (γδ T cells): these in turn release factors that drive tumour cell proliferation, including IL-22. From Jin et al. 2019.

As lung tumours grow in this mouse model the total bacterial load increases. This abnormal regulation of the local bug community stimulates white blood cells (T cells present in the lung) to make and release small proteins (cytokines, in particular interleukin 17) that signal to neutrophils and tumour cells to promote growth.

This new finding reveals that cross-talk between the local microbiota and the immune system can drive lung tumour development. The extent of lung tumour growth correlated with the levels of bacteria in the airway but not with those in the intestinal tract — so this is an effect specific to the lung bugs.

Indeed, rather than the players prominent in the intestines (Bs & Fs) that we met in Hitchhiker Or Driver?, the most common members of the lung microbiome are Staphylococcus, Streptococcus and Lactobacillus.

In a final twist Jin & Co. took bacteria from late-stage tumours and inoculated them into the lungs of mice with early tumours that then grew faster.

These experiments have revealed a hitherto unknown role for bacteria in cancer and, of course, the molecular signals identified join the ever-expanding list of potential targets for drug intervention.


Jin, C. et al. (2019). Commensal Microbiota Promote Lung Cancer Development via γδ T Cells. Cell 176, 998-1013.e16.


Now wash your hands!


You must have spent the last 20 years on a distant planet if you’re unaware that we’re heading for Antibiotic Armaggedon — the rise of “Superbugs”, i.e., bacteria resistant to once-successful medication. Microbes resistant to multiple antimicrobials are called multidrug resistant. It’s a desperate matter because it means trivial infections may become fatal and currently safe surgical procedures may become dangerous.

Time-line of the discovery of different antibiotic classes in clinical use. The key point is that the last antibiotic class to become a successful treatment was discovered in 1987.

What’s the problem?
It’s 30 years since we came up a new class of antibiotics. The golden age launched by Fleming’s celebrated discovery of penicillin is long gone and while the discovery curve has drifted ever downwards since 1960 the bugs have been busy.

Just how busy a bug can be was shown by a large-scale experiment carried out by Roy Kishony and friends. They built a “Mega-Plate” — a Petri Dish 2 ft by 4 ft filled with a jelly for the bacteria to grow in. The bugs were seeded into channels at either end so they would grow towards the middle. The only thing stopping them was four channels dosed with antibiotic at increasing concentrations — 10 times more in each successive channel.

The bugs grow until they hit a wall of antibiotic. There they pause for a think — and, after a bit, an intrepid little group start to make their way into the higher dose of drug. Gradually the number of groups expand until a tidal wave sweeps over that barrier. This is repeated at each new ‘wall’ — four times until the whole tray is a bug fest.

When they pause at each new ‘wall’ they’re not ‘thinking’ of course. They’re just picking up random mutations in their DNA until they are able to advance into the high drug environment. So this experiment is a fantastic visual display of bugs becoming drug-resistant. And it’s terrifying because it takes about 11 days for them to overcome four levels of drug. It’s even more scary in the speeded-up movie as that lasts less than two minutes.

Sound familiar?
It should do as this is a cancer column and readers will know that cancers arise by picking up mutations. To highlight the similarities the picture below is the left-hand half of the bug tray with new colonies shown as linked dots. You could perfectly well think of these as early stage cancer cells acquiring mutations in ‘driver’ genes that push them towards tumour formation.

So that’s pretty scary too and the only good news is that animal cells reproduce much more slowly than bacteria. The fastest they can manage is about 48 hours to grow and divide into two new cells and for many it’s much slower than that. Bugs, on the other hand, can do it in 20 minutes if you feed them enough of the right stuff.

Which is why we don’t all get zonked by cancer at an early age.

The evolution of bacteria on a “Mega-Plate” Petri Dish. The vertical red lines mark the boundaries of increasing antibiotic concentrations. You could equally think of each dot that represents a new bacterial colony being early stage cancer cells acquiring mutations in ‘driver’ genes (white arrows) that push them towards tumour formation. From Roy Kishony’s Laboratory at Harvard Medical School.

Enough of that!
But for once I don’t want to talk about cancer but about a really fascinating piece of work that caught my eye in the journal Cell Reports. It’s by Gianni Panagiotou, Kang Kang and colleagues from The University of Hong Kong and The Hans Knöll Institute, Jena, Germany and it’s all about their travels on the Hong Kong MTR (Mass Transit Railway). This is the network of over 200 km of railway lines with 159 stations that serves the urbanised areas of Hong Kong IslandKowloon, and the New Territories and has a cross- border connection to the neighboring city of Shenzhen in mainland China.

An MTR train on the Tung Chung line that links Lantau Island with Hong Kong Island.

Being scientists of course they weren’t just having a day out. They wanted to know the contents of the microbiome that they and their fellow travellers picked up on the palms of their hands when riding the rails. ‘Microbiome’ means all of the collection of microorganisms — though in practice this is almost entirely bacteria. So they swabbed the palms of volunteers and then threw the full power of modern DNA sequencing and genetic analysis at what they’d scraped off. Or, as they put it: “We conducted a metagenomic study of the Hong Kong MTR system.”

And if you’re thinking it might be possible to take a trip on the Hong Kong Metro without grabbing a handrail or otherwise engaging in what on the London Underground used to be called ‘strap-hanging’ you clearly haven’t tried it!

Hong Kong MTR.


The MTR System and Sampling Procedure. Left: The eight urban lines studied: the Airport Express line and Disneyland Resort branch were excluded. The Central-Hong Kong station and the cross-border rail stations connecting with the MTR and the Shenzhen metro system are labeled. Right: The sampling procedure included handwashing, handrail touching for 30 min and swabbing. From Kang et al. 2018.

Hold very tight please! 

It’s going to become a seriously bumpy ride. The major findings were:

  1. Four groups (phyla) of bacteria dominated: Actinobacteria [51%], Proteobacteria [27%], Firmicutes [11%] and Bacteroidetes [2%]. Followers of this blog will be delighted to spot the last two (B & F) as we’ve met them several times before (in Hitchhiker Or Driver?, Fast Food Fix Focuses on Fibre, Our Inner Self, The Best Laid Plans In Mice and Men, and, of course, in it’s a small world) — that’s how important they are in the context of cancer.
  2. The dominant organism (29% of the community) was P. acnes (one of the Actinobacteria — it’s the bug linked to the skin condition of acne).
  3. Some non-human-associated species (e.g., soil organisms) also popped up that varied enormously in amount from day to day — perhaps because of weather conditions (e.g., humidity).
  4. Variation in the make-up of the microbial communities picked up depended, more than anything else, on the time of day. There was a marked decrease in diversity in afternoon samples compared with those taken in the morning.
  5. Specific species of bacteria associated with individual metro lines. That is, sets of bug types are relatively abundant on a given line compared with all other lines, giving a kind of line-specific signature — though the distinction declines from morning to afternoon. The most physically isolated line, MOS (Ma On Shan), had a greater number of signature species. The MOS runs entirely above ground alongside the Shing Mun Channel, a polluted brackish river, and its ‘signature’ includes bacteria found in sewage.
  6. All of which brings us to bugs with antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs). Across the network 136 ARG families were detected including 24 that are clinically important. Strikingly, lines closer to Shenzhen (ER (East Rail) and MOS) tend to have higher ARG input during the day. Critically, the ER line a.m. signatures become p.m.-enriched in all MTR lines far from Shenzhen — that is, these ARG families spread over the network during the day.

Simplified map of the Hong Kong MTR indicating how antibiotic resistance genes spread during the day from the ER and MOS lines to the entire network. Tetracycline resistance genes: tetA, tetO, tetRRPP and tetMWOS; vancomycin resistance genes: vanC, vanX. From Kang et al. 2018.

These results clearly suggest that the ER line, the only cross-border line linked to mainland China, may be a source of clinically important ARGs, especially against tetracycline, a commonly used antibiotic in China’s swine feedlots. Antibiotics, including tetracycline, can be detected in the soil in the Pearl River Delta area where the cities of Hong Kong and Shenzhen are located.

It should be said that this is by no means the first survey of bugs on rails. Notable ones have looked at the New York and Boston metro systems and they too revealed the potential health risks of the bug communities found on trains and in the stations, including the presence of pathogens and antibiotic resistance. The Boston survey highlighted that different types of materials have surfaces that are preferred by different microbes with high variation in functional capacity and pathogenic potential.

One obvious suggestion from these studies is that world-wide we could do a lot to improve sanitation, e.g., by having hand sanitizer dispensers in all sensible places (at the exits of metro, railway and bike-sharing stations and airports and of course in hospitals). The Hong Kong data are seriously frightening and most people seem blissfully unaware that the invisible world they reveal carries the potential for the destruction of us all.

But, as ever, there’s two sides to the matter. We’ve evolved over millions of years to live with bugs and they with us. However you wash your hands you won’t get rid of every bug and anyway, as what’s-his-name almost says, “They’ll be back!” We all carry around micro-organisms that can be fatal if they get to the wrong place. But, if you’re reasonably fit, there’s a lot to be said for simply following sensible, basic hygiene rules with a philosophy of ‘live and let live.’

Have a nice day commuters, wherever you are!


Kang K., et al. (2018). The Environmental Exposures and Inner- and Intercity Traffic Flows of the Metro System May Contribute to the Skin Microbiome and Resistome. Cell Reports 24, 1190–1202.

Wu, N., Qiao, M., Zhang, B., Cheng, W.D., and Zhu, Y.G. (2010). Abundance and diversity of tetracycline resistance genes in soils adjacent to representative swine feedlots in China. Environ. Sci. Technol. 44, 6933–6939.

Li, Y.W., Wu, X.L., Mo, C.H., Tai, Y.P., Huang, X.P., and Xiang, L. (2011). Investigation of sulfonamide, tetracycline, and quinolone antibiotics in vegetable farmland soil in the Pearl River Delta area, southern China. J. Agric. Food Chem. 59, 7268–7276.

Leung, M.H., Wilkins, D., Li, E.K., Kong, F.K., and Lee, P.K. (2014). Indoor-air microbiome in an urban subway network: diversity and dynamics. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 80, 6760–6770.

Robertson, C.E., Baumgartner, L.K., Harris, J.K., Peterson, K.L., Stevens, M.J., Frank, D.N., and Pace, N.R. (2013). Culture-independent analysis of aerosol microbiology in a metropolitan subway system. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 79, 3485–3493.

Afshinnekoo, E., Meydan, C., Chowdhury, S., Jaroudi, D., Boyer, C., Bernstein, N., Maritz, J.M., Reeves, D., Gandara, J., Chhangawala, S., et al. (2015). Geospatial Resolution of Human and Bacterial Diversity with City-Scale Metagenomics. Cell Syst 1, 72–87.

Hsu, T., Joice, R., Vallarino, J., Abu-Ali, G., Hartmann, E.M., Shafquat, A., Du- Long, C., Baranowski, C., Gevers, D., Green, J.L., et al. (2016). Urban Transit System Microbial Communities Differ by Surface Type and Interaction with Humans and the Environment. mSystems 1, e00018–e00016.

Same Again Please


It’s often said that every family has its secret — Uncle Fred’s fondness for the horses, Cousin Bertha’s promiscuity, etc. — whatever it is that ‘we don’t talk about.’ If that’s true the scientific community is no exception. For us the unutterable is reproducibility — meaning you’ve done an experiment, new in some way, but the key questions are: ‘Can you do it again with the same result?’ and, even more important: ‘Can someone else repeat it?’

Once upon a time in my lab we had a standing joke: whoever came bounding along shouting about a new result would be asked ‘How reproducible is it?’ Reply: ‘100%!’ Next question: ‘How often have you done the experiment?’ Reply: ‘Once!!’ Boom, boom!!!

Not a rib-tickler but it did point to the knottiest problem in biological science namely that, when you start tinkering with living systems, you’re never fully in control.

How big is the problem?

But, as dear old Bob once put it, The Times They Are a-Changin’. Our problem was highlighted in the cancer field by the Californian biotechnology company Amgen who announced in 2012 that, over a 10 year period, they’d selected 53 ‘landmark’ cancer papers — and failed to replicate 47 of them! Around the same time a study by Bayer HealthCare found that only about one in four of published studies on potential drug targets was sufficiently strong to be worth following up.

More recently the leading science journal Nature found that almost three quarters of over 1,500 research scientists surveyed had tried to replicate someone else’s experiment and failed. It gets worse! More than half of them owned up to having failed to repeat one of their own experiments! Hooray! We have a result!! If you can’t repeat your own experiment either you’re sloppy (i.e., you haven’t done exactly what you did the first time) or you’ve highlighted the biological variability in the system you’re studying.

If you want an example of biological variation you need look no further than human conception and live births. Somewhere in excess of 50% of fertilized human eggs don’t make it to birth. In other words, if you do a ‘thought experiment’ in which a group of women carry some sort of gadget that flags when one of their eggs is fertilized, only between one in two and one in five of those ‘flagged’ will actually produce an offspring.

However you look at it, whether it’s biological variation, incompetence or plain fraud, we have a problem and Nature’s survey revealed that, to their credit, the majority of scientists agreed that there was a ‘significant crisis.’

The results of the survey by Nature from Baker 2016.

Predictably, but disturbingly for us in the biomedical fields, the greatest confidence in published results was shown by the chemists and physicists whereas only 50% of data in medicine were thought to be reproducible. Oh dear!

Tackling the problem in cancer

The Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology, launched in 2013, is a collaboration between the Center for Open Science and Science Exchange.

The idea was to take 50 cancer papers published in leading journals and to attempt to replicate their key findings in the most rigorous manner. The number was reduced from 50 to 29 papers due to financial constraints and other factors but the aim remains to find out what affects the robustness of experimental results in preclinical cancer research.

It is a formidable project. Before even starting an experiment, the replication teams devised detailed plans, based on the original reports and, as the result of many hours effort, came up with a strategy that both they and the original experimenters considered was the best they could carry out. The protocols were then peer reviewed and the replication plans were published before the studies began.

Just to give an idea of the effort involved, a typical replication plan comprises many pages of detailed protocols describing reagents, cells and (where appropriate) animals to be used, statistical analysis and any other relevant items, as well as incorporating the input from referees.

The whole endeavor is, in short, a demonstration of scientific practice at its best.

To date ten of these replication studies have been published.

How are we doing?

The critical numbers are that 6 of the 10 replications ‘substantially reproduced’ the original findings, although in 4 of these some results could not be replicated. In 4 of the 10 replications the original findings were not reproduced.

The first thing to say is that a 60% rate of ‘substantial’ successful replication is a major improvement on the 11% to 25% obtained by the biotech companies. The most obvious explanation is that the massive, collaborative effort to tighten up the experimental procedures paid dividends.

The second point to note is that even when a replication attempt fails it cannot be concluded that the original data were wrong. The discrepancy may merely have highlighted how fiendishly tricky biological experimentation can be. The problem is that with living systems, be they cells or animals, you never have complete control. Ask anyone who has a cat.

More likely, however, than biological variation as a cause of discrepancies between experiments is human variation, aka personal bias.

This may come as a surprise to some but, rather than being ‘black and white’ much of scientific interpretation is subjective. Try as I might, can I be sure that in, say, counting stained cells I don’t include some marginal ones because that fits my model? OK: the solution to that is get someone else to do the count ‘blind’ — but I suspect that quite often that’s not done. However, there are even trickier matters. I do half a dozen repeats of an experiment and one gives an odd result (i.e., differs from the other five). Only I can really go through everything involved (from length of coffee breaks to changes in reagent stocks) and decide if there are strong enough grounds to ignore it. I do my best to avoid personal bias but … scientists are only human (fact!).

A closer look at failure

One of the failed replications is a particularly useful illustration for this blog. The replication study tackled a 2012 report that bacterial infection (specifically a bacterium, Fusobacterium nucleatum, that occurs naturally in the human oral cavity) is present in human colon cancers but not in non-cancerous colon tissues. It hit the rocks. They couldn’t detect F. nucleatum in most tumour samples and, when they did, the number of bugs was not significantly different to that in adjacent normal tissue.

Quite by chance, a few months ago, I described some more recent research into this topic in Hitchhiker or Driver?

I thought this was interesting because it showed that not only was F. nucleatum part of the microbiome of bowel cancer but that when tumour cells spread to distant sites (i.e., underwent metastasis) the bugs went along for the ride — raising the key question of whether they actually helped the critical event of metastasis.

So this latest study was consistent with the earlier result and extended it — indeed they actually showed that antibiotic treatment to kill the bugs slowed the growth of human tumour cells in mice.

Where does that leave us?

Well, helpfully, the Reproducibility Project also solicits comments from independent experts to help us make sense of what’s going on. Step forward Cynthia Sears of The Johns Hopkins Hospital. She takes the view that, although the Replication Study didn’t reproduce the original results, the fact that numerous studies have already found an association between F. nucleatum and human colon cancer means there probably is one — consistent with the work described in Hitchhiker or Driver?

One possible explanation for the discrepancy is that the original report studied colon tissue pairs (i.e., tumour and tumour-adjacent tissues) from colon cancer patients but did not report possibly relevant factors like age, sex and ethnicity of patients. In contrast, the replication effort included samples from patients with cancer (tumour and adjacent tissue) and non-diseased control tissue samples from age, sex and ethnicity matched individuals.

So we now know, as Dr. Sears helpfully remarks, that the association between F. nucleatum bugs and human colon cancer is more complicated first appeared! Mmm. And, just in case you were in any doubt, she points out that we need to know more about the who (which Fusobacterium species: there are 12 of them known), the where (where in the colon, where in the world) and the how (the disease mechanisms).

Can we do better?

In the light of all that the obvious question is: what can we do about the number of pre-clinical studies that are difficult if not impossible to reproduce? Answer, I think: not much. Rather than defeatist this seems to me a realistic response. There’s no way we could put in place the rigorous scrutiny of the Reproducibility Project across even a fraction of cancer research projects. The best we can do is make researchers as aware as possible of the problems and encourage them towards the very best practices — and assume that, in the end, the solid results will emerge and the rest will fall by the wayside.

Looking at the sharp end, it’s worth noting that, if you accept that some of the variability in pre-clinical experiments is down to the biological variation we mentioned above, it would at least be consistent with the wide range of patient responses to some cancer treatments. The reason for that, as Cynthia Sears didn’t quite put it, is that we just don’t know enough about how the humans we’re tinkering with actually work.


Baker, M. (2016). Is There a Reproducibility Crisis? Nature 533, 452-454.

Jarvis, G.E. (2017). Early embryo mortality in natural human reproduction: What the data say [version 2; referees: 1 approved, 2 approved with reservations] F1000Research 2017, 5:2765 (doi: 10.12688/f1000research.8937.2).

Monya Baker & Elie Dolgin (2017). Cancer reproducibility project releases first results. Nature 541, 269–270. doi:10.1038/541269a.

Begley, C.G. and Ellis, L.M. (2012). Drug development: Raise standards for preclinical cancer research. Nature 483, 531–533.

Prinz,F., Schlange,T. and Asadullah, K. (2011). Believe it or not: how much can we rely on published data on potential drug targets? NatureRev. Drug Discov. 10, 712.

Hitchhiker Or Driver?


It’s a little while since we talked about what you might call our hidden self — the vast army of bugs that colonises our nooks and crannies, especially our intestines, and that is essential to our survival.

In Our Inner Self we noted that these little guys outnumber the human cells that make up the body by about ten to one. Actually that estimate has recently been revised — downwards you might be relieved to hear — to about 1.3 bacterial cells per human cell but it doesn’t really matter. They are a major part of what’s called the microbiome — a vast army of microorganisms that call our bodies home but on which we also depend for our very survival.

In our personal army there’s something like 700 different species of bacteria, with thirty or forty making up the majority. We upset them at our peril. Artificial sweeteners, widely used as food additives, can change the proportions of types of gut bacteria. Some antibiotics that kill off bacteria can make mice obese — and they probably do the same to us. Obese humans do indeed have reduced numbers of bugs and obesity itself is associated with increased cancer risk.

In it’s a small world we met two major bacterial sub-families, Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes, and noted that their levels appear to affect the development of liver and bowel cancers. Well, the Bs & Fs are still around you’ll be glad to know but in a recent piece of work the limelight has been taken by another bunch of Fs — a sub-group (i.e. related to the Bs & Fs) called Fusobacterium.

It’s been known for a few years that human colon cancers carry enriched levels of these bugs compared to non-cancerous colon tissues — suggesting, though not proving, that Fusobacteria may be pro-tumorigenic. In the latest, pretty amazing, installment Susan Bullman and colleagues from Harvard, Yale and Barcelona have shown that not merely is Fusobacterium part of the microbiome that colonises human colon cancers but that when these growths spread to distant sites (i.e. metastasise) the little Fs tag along for the ride! 

Bacteria in a primary human bowel tumour.  The arrows show tumour cells infected with Fusobacteria (red dots).

Bacteria in a liver metastasis of the same bowel tumour.  Though more difficult to see, the  red dot (arrow) marks the presence of bacteria from the original tumour. From Bullman et al., 2017.

In other words, when metastasis kicks in it’s not just the tumour cells that escape from the primary site but a whole community of host cells and bugs that sets sail on the high seas of the circulatory system.

But doesn’t that suggest that these bugs might be doing something to help the growth and spread of these tumours? And if so might that suggest that … of course it does and Bullman & Co did the experiment. They tried an antibiotic that kills Fusobacteria (metronidazole) to see if it had any effect on F–carrying tumours. Sure enough it reduced the number of bugs and slowed the growth of human tumour cells in mice.

Growth of human tumour cells in mice. The antibiotic metronidazole slows the growth of these tumour by about 30%. From Bullman et al., 2017.

We’re still a long way from a human therapy but it is quite a startling thought that antibiotics might one day find a place in the cancer drug cabinet.


Bullman, S. et al. (2017). Analysis of Fusobacterium persistence and antibiotic response in colorectal cancer. Science  358, 1443-1448. DOI: 10.1126/science.aal5240

Clocking In With Cancer Treatment

I always hesitate to say things like ‘you may recall’ as, from much undergraduate teaching, I’ve learned that blithe throwaways like ‘you’ll remember this from last Monday’s lecture’ tend to be met with blank stares and trying ‘you met this idea in the first year’ on second year classes will draw forth outright mirth blending with mutinous howls. So let’s just start by noting that three weeks ago in Our Inner Self we had a march-past of our intestinal army of bacteria and saw that it is in continuous flux, its make-up oscillating in time to our biological clock – the daily variation that governs most of our bodily functions including the sleep-wake cycle. That’s amazing stuff but a sharp bit of lateral thinking raises interesting questions. If most of the important things in our bodies tick to circadian rhythms, is cell proliferation one of them – after all, the process of cells making more of themselves is at the heart of life. Answer ‘yes.’ But, as abnormal cell proliferation – i.e. something going wrong – is a perfectly adequate three-word definition of cancer, a small step extends the question to ‘do tumours also have rhythm?’ Answer, again, ‘yes.’ A little background before we explain.

Turning back to the clock

In Twenty more winks we saw that there’s a connection between sleep (or rather lack of it) and cancer and showed how two pairs of genes (CRY/PER and CLOCK/BMAL1) lie at the core of circadian timekeeping. They control the sleep-wake cycle and much else. The proteins they make form an orchestrated feedback loop, synchronised by light-induced signalling. That is, the expression of each pair oscillates with a period of roughly 24 hours, but the pairs are out of step to the tune of about 12 hours. The proteins encoded by these genes regulate the expression of many other genes that ensure the cells and tissues of the body beat to an appropriate rhythm. Many messengers spread circadian oscillations around the body via the blood of which, in humans, cortisol (made by the adrenal glands) is perhaps the most familiar (it’s a steroid hormone: the medication dexamethasone is cortisol with two small, extra bits that make it 25 times more potent). You can fairly easily measure cortisol concentration in blood and you’d expect to find that at nine in the morning you’d have roughly double your midnight amount. In other words cortisol is part of your wake-up call. It turns on your appetite, gets you geared up for physical activity and it also activates anti-stress and anti-inflammatory signal pathways. EGFR & cortisol Cross-talk between EGFR and cortisol during the active phase (right: high cortisol) and the resting phase (left: low cortisol). (from Lauriola et al., 2014).

Getting the message across

Taking the memory-prodding risk yet again, in Mission Impossible? we described how biological signals from the outside world bind to receptors (proteins) to convey their message (I’m here, do something!) to the interior of cells. So the picture is: cells receive many signals from messengers that, one way or another, talk to the nucleus, switching on genes that drive proliferation. Most external messengers are proteins themselves – one example is a potent growth promoter called epidermal growth factor (EGF) that works by switching on the EGF receptor (EGFR). Cortisol isn’t a protein: as we’ve noted, it’s a steroid – which means it can diffuse across membranes – but, once inside a cell it works in essentially the same way, by binding to its specific receptor. The upshot of all this is that messengers transmit information from outside the cell to the nucleus – where DNA lives, the cells’ repository of genetic material – so that genes become activated to produce proteins.

Oscillating signals: cellular chattering

The picture of multiple, linear signalling pathways co-existing within cells invites the idea that their protein components might be unable to resist tapping in to their neighbours’ conversations – and so it has turned out. However, for pathways like the EGFR that signal cell growth, cross-talk with cortisol signalling is more than merely listening in. Proteins activated by the steroid hormone can actually interfere with the relays in the EGFR pathway so that EGF signals are suppressed during the active phase (day-time in us, night-time in rodents) but enhanced during the resting phase.

The meaning for life

So growth signaling is under circadian control – by and large our cells do their multiplying when we are at rest. Interesting although perhaps not unexpected. But, as The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band warbled, ‘here comes the twist’ (Urban Spaceman, 1968 if you’re struggling). These pathways are the very ones that are hyper-activated (i.e. mutated) to drive cancer cells to make more of themselves and they are, accordingly, the targets for many anti-cancer drugs. However, chemotherapy is usually administered as single bursts, at daily or longer intervals, and drugs are progressively removed by metabolism thereafter. This means that much of the impact may be lost if, when the drug concentration is at its highest, the target pathway is already suppressed by high glucocorticoids . There’s evidence consistent with this idea from animals bearing EGFR-driven tumours treated with specific inhibitors that are more effective if administered in the resting phase rather than in the active phase.

It’s all in the timing

So two new messages are now making themselves heard in the world of cancer biology. The first is beginning to tell the full story of clock complexity. The second takes up this theme by pointing out that a circadian clock-based model in cancer therapy may offer improved methods for prevention and treatment.


Lauriola, M. et al. Diurnal suppression of EGFR signalling by glucocorticoids and implications for tumour progression and treatment. Nat. Commun. 5:5073 doi: 10.1038/ncomms6073 (2014).