Cancer GPS?

The thing that pretty well everyone knows about cancers is that most are furtive little blighters. They kill one in three of us but usually we don’t they’re there until they are big enough to make something go wrong in the body or to show up in our seriously inadequate screening methods. In that sense they resemble heart problems of one sort or another, where often the first indication of trouble is unexpectedly finding yourself lying on the floor.

Meanwhile, out on the highways and byways you are about 75 times less likely to be killed in an accident than you are to succumb to either cancers or circulation failure. Which is a way of saying that in the UK about 2000 of us perish on the roads each year. That it’s ‘only’ 2000 is presumably because here your assailant is anything but furtive. All you’ve got to do is side-step the juggernaut and you’ll probably live to be – well, old enough to get cancer.

Did you know, by the way, that ‘juggernaut’ is said to come from the chariots of the Jagannath Temple in Puri on the east coast of India. These are vast contraptions used to carry representations of Hindu gods on annual festival days that look as though walking pace would be too much for them. So, replace the monsters on our roads with real juggernauts! Problem largely solved!!

Flagging cancer

But to get back to cancer or, more precisely, the difficulty of seeing it. After centuries of failing to make any inroads, recent dramatic advances give hope that all is about to change. These rely on the fact that tissues shed cells – and with them DNA – into the circulation. Tumours do this too – so in effect they are scattering clues to their existence into blood. By using short stretches of artificial DNA as bait, it’s possible to fish out tumour cell DNA from a few drops of 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 other cells in every cubic millimeter of blood.

There are two big attractions in this ‘microfluidics’ approach. First it’s almost ‘non-invasive’ in needing only a small blood sample and, second, it is possible that indicators may be picked up long before a tumour would otherwise show up. In effect it’s taking a biochemical magnifying glass to our body to ask if there’s anything there that wouldn’t normally be present. Detect a marker and you know there’s a tumour somewhere in the body, and if the marker changes in concentration in response to a treatment, you have a monitor for how well that treatment is doing. So far, so good.

And the problem?

These ‘liquid biopsy’ methods that use just a teaspoonful of blood have been under development for several years but there has been one big cloud hanging over them. They appear to be exquisitely sensitive in detecting the presence of a cancer – by sequencing the DNA picked up – but they have not been able to pinpoint the tissue of origin. Until now.

Step forward epigenetics

Shuli Kang and colleagues at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California have broken this impasse by turning to epigenetics. We noted in Twenty More Winks that an epigenetic modification is any change in DNA, other than in the sequence of bases (i.e. mutation), that affects how an organism develops or functions. They’re brought about by tacking small chemical groups (commonly methyl (CH3) groups) either on to some of the bases in DNA itself or on to the proteins (histones) that act like cotton reels around which DNA wraps itself. The upshot is small changes in the structure of DNA that affect gene expression. You can think of DNA methylation as a series of flags dotted along the DNA strand, decorating it in a seemingly random pattern. It isn’t random, of course, and the target for methylation is a cytosine nucleotide (C) followed by a guanine (G) in the linear DNA sequence – called a CpG site because G and C are separated by one phosphate (p). Phosphate links nucleosides together in the backbone of DNA.

Cancer cells often display abnormal DNA methylation patterns – excess methylation (hypermethylation) in some regions, reduced methylation in others – that contributes to their peculiar behavior. It’s possible to determine the methylation profile of a DNA sample (by a method called bisulfite sequencing).

Kang & Co. developed a computer program to analyse methylation profiles from solid tumours and healthy samples in public databases and compare them to patient DNA of unknown tissue origin.

The peaks represent CpG clusters that characterize normal cells (top) and a variety of cancers. The key point is that the different patterns identify the tissue of origin (from Kang, S. et al., 2017).

The program’s called CancerLocator and in this initial study it was used to test samples from patients with lung, liver or breast cancer. In the modest words of the authors, CancerLocator ‘vastly outperforms’ previous methods – mind you, they struggle to even to distinguish most cancer samples from non-cancer samples. Nevertheless, CancerLocator’s a big step forward, not least because it can detect early stage cancers with 80% accuracy.

It’s also reasonable to expect major improvements as methylation sequencing becomes more extensive and higher resolution reveals more subtle signatures. What’s more, in principle, it should be able to detect all types of cancers – meaning that, after all so many centuries we may at last have a way of side-stepping the juggernaut.


Kang, S. et al. (2017). CancerLocator: non-invasive cancer diagnosis and tissue-of-origin prediction using methylation profiles of cell-free DNA. Genome Biology DOI 10.1186/s13059-017-1191-5.

Seeing the Invisible: A Cancer Early Warning System?

Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts who also follow this column may, in a contemplative moment, have asked themselves whether their hero would have made a good cancer detective. Answer perhaps ‘yes’ in that he was obsessive about sticking to the facts and not guessing and would probably have said that, when tracking down a secretive quarry, you need to be as open-minded as possible in looking for clues. One of his most celebrated efforts at marrying observation with knowledge was his greeting upon first meeting Dr. Watson: “How are you? You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive”. Watson was suitably astonished by this apparent clairvoyance although its basis was in fact rather mundane and only beyond him because, as Sherlock kindly explained, “You see, but you do not observe.”


Dr. Holmes perchance?

If Watson had paused to wonder whether Holmes’ combination of superiority complex and investigative genius would have fitted him for a career in the medical fraternity, he might have reflected that indeed many internal afflictions do manifest external signs – much as the furtive body language of a felon on a job might mark him out to the observant eye in the throng of bodies pressing into Baker Street underground station. So perhaps the ’tec turned doc could make it in infectious diseases or become a consultant in rheumatoid arthritis. But would he have steered clear of oncology, reasoning that most cancers are without symptoms during their early development and that even he could not observe the invisible?

Lithograph of Baker Street Station   Baker Street Station on the Metropolitan Railway in 1863 (London Transport Museum collection)

Probably, but before taking that decision he would have asked for a tutorial – perhaps from that bright fellow Stephen Paget, who would have explained that cancers are unusual lumps of cells that can often be cut out by surgeons such as himself. But he’d have highlighted the problem that similar growths commonly turn up later at other, secondary, sites in the body – they are what kills most cancer patients and no one has a clue how this happens or what to do about it. Holmes would doubtless have taken a deep suck on his pipe, commented that, as no one appeared to disagree with William Harvey’s 250 year old finding that blood is passed to every nook and cranny of the body by the circulatory system, it scarcely required his giant intellect to deduce that to be the most probable way of spreading tumours. Further observing that cancers develop very slowly, he would have pointed out that it is highly likely that within the body there might be clues – molecular signs that something is amiss – long before overt disease appears. All that was required was a biological magnifying glass and tweezers to spot and pick out rogue cells and molecules. Muttering ‘Elementary’ he would then have asked to be excused to return to the really tricky problem of outsmarting Professor Moriarty.

An Achilles’ heel?

Well, as we have just reviewed in Scattering the Bad Seed, some 130 years after that imaginary encounter the ‘elementary’ way in which tumours spread to form metastases is just beginning to be revealed and, of course, the hope is that eventually this knowledge will lead to ways of treating disseminated cancers or even preventing them. That’s a wonderful prospect but even more exciting are technical advances enabling us to exploit what Sherlock had spotted as something of a cancer Achilles’ heel – namely that, if tumour cells spread via the bloodstream, we need only the right tools (magnifying glass and tweezers) to detect secondary growths almost before they’ve started to form. As most people know, the earlier cancers are caught the more likely they are to be cured, the most critical intervention being before they have spread to form metastases that are the major cause of death.

The things you find in blood

In fact, quite apart from intact tumour cells migrating around the circulation, it’s been known for 40 years that most types of cell in our bodies have the rather odd quirk of releasing short bits of their DNA into the circulation. Cancer cells do this too and these chromosome fragments reflect the genetic mayhem that is their hallmark. How DNA gets out of the nucleus and then across the outer membrane of the cell isn’t known but it does – and the bits of nucleic acid act as messengers, being taken up by other cells that respond by changing their behaviour. In Beware of Greeks we saw that DNA fragments released by leukemia cells can help those cells escape from the bone marrow into circulating blood.

There’s yet another sort of cellular garbage swishing around in our circulation: small sacs like little cells that contain proteins and RNAs (nucleic acids closely related to DNA). These small, secreted vesicles are called exosomes and in fact they’re not at all rubbish but are also messengers, communicating with other cells by fusing and transferring their contents. So exosomes are another form of environmental educator.

Going fishing

The problem has been that until very recently it has not been possible to fish out tumour cells or DNA from the vast number of cells in blood (we’ve each got over 20 trillion red blood cells in our five litres or so). However, an exciting new development has been the application of silicon chip technology to the detection of circulating tumour cells (CTCs). The chips, which are the size of a microscope slide (10 x 2 cm), have about 80,000 microscopic columns etched on their surface that are coated with an array of antibodies that stick to molecules expressed on the surface of CTCs. By incorporating the chips into small flow cells it’s possible to capture about 100 CTCs from a teaspoon of blood – that’s pulling out one tumour cell from a background of a billion (109) normal cells.


Tumour cell isolation from whole blood by a CTC-chip. Whole blood is circulated through a flow cell containing the capture columns (Stott et al., 2010)

This microfluidics approach can also be used to isolate tumour cell DNA. For this the coatings are short stretches of artificial DNA of different sequences: these bind to free DNA in the same way that two strands of DNA stick together to make the double helix.

This remarkable technology may offer both the most promising way to early tumour detection and of determining responses to drugs. It also provides a bridge between proteomic and genomic technologies because DNA, captured directly or extracted from isolated cells, can be used for whole genome sequencing. If this system is able to capture cells from most major types of tumour it will indeed provide a rapid route from early detection through genomic analysis to tailored chemotherapy without the requirement for tumour biopsies. In Signs of Resistance we noted that it’s possible to track the response of secondary tumours (metastases) to drug treatment (chemotherapy) using this method of pulling out tumor DNA from blood and sequencing it.

The really optimistic view is that chip isolation of DNA or tumour cells may be a means to cancer detection years, perhaps decades, before any other test would show its presence. By following up with the power of sequencing, the hope is that appropriate drug cocktails can be devised to, so to speak, nip the tumour in the bud.

Wizard’s secret

By the way, Conan Doyle eventually revealed the method behind Sherlock’s wizardry: Watson was a medical man but walked with a military bearing: the skin on his wrists was fair but his face tanned and haggard and he held his left arm in a stiff and unnatural manner. So here was a British army doctor who had served in the tropics (or somewhere equally hot) and been wounded. In 1886 where would that have been? Oh yes, of course. Afghanistan.


Stott, S.L., Hsu, C.-H., Tsukrov, D.I., Yu, M., Miyamoto, D.T., Waltman, B.A., Rothenberg, M.S., Shah, A.M., Smas, M.E., Korir, G.K., Floyd, Jr., F.P., Gilman, A.J., Lord, J.B., Winokur, D., Springer, S., Irimia, D., Nagrath, S., Sequist, L.V., Lee, R.J., Isselbacher, K.J., Maheswaran, S., Haber, D.A. and Toner, M. (2010). Isolation of circulating tumour cells using a microvortex-generating herringbone-chip. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107, 18392-18397.