The Best Laid Plans In Mice and Men …

I never thought I’d find myself indebted to one R. Burns, said to be Scotland’s national poet, but as a title for today’s piece it’s hard to avoid a mild bit of adaptive plagiarism. And after all, if John Steinbeck could do it …

Artificial sweeteners are wonderful things …

The next thing to do is to pass up all pretence at suspense and give the upshot of a remarkable new bit of work first. The story is of artificial sweeteners (non-caloric artificial sweeteners: NAS for short – most commonly saccharin) – among the most widely used food additives worldwide. Introduced over a century ago, they’ve long been considered great as they pander to our sweet teeth yet are low on calories – what can possibly go wrong?

Saccharin  StructureSweet'N Low

Well, according to Jotham Suez and his pals in The Weizmann Institute, Israel, quite a lot, once you get round to looking in the right places. They found that artificial sweeteners, particularly saccharin, make normal folk glucose intolerant (i.e. cause metabolic conditions – including diabetes – in which blood glucose levels are raised, aka hyperglycemia). Moreover, they do so by changing the make up of the bacteria in our gut (our intestinal microbiota – we’ve already met these guys in it’s a small world). The effects of NAS are reversed by antibiotics which, as we described in it’s a small world, can have drastic, permanent effects on our insides.

It’s a real shocker because, put another way, it shows NAS can dirDiet Coke etcectly drive the very outcomes we’re trying to avoid – diabetes and obesity.

How do they do it?

Suez & Co first showed that saccharin increases blood glucose in mice (glucose intolerance). Treatment with commonly used antibiotics (e.g., ciprofloxacin) blocks this effect. Sequencing DNA extracted from faeces revealed big shifts in the proportions of different types bacteria (taxa) – with some increasing whilst others went down. The overall effect is that the intestinal bugs (microbiota) as a whole became much more efficient at energy harvesting from food (e.g., producing more short-chain fatty acids) – an effect known to be associated with obesity in both mice and humans.

Obese miceDirect or indirect?

To show whether saccharin does this by directly acting on gut bugs they grew samples of faeces in the lab with and without added saccharin and – you’ve guessed it – the bug balance changed: Firmicutes down, Bacteroidetes up (from 89 to 79% and 6 to 22%, respectively). Transferring the saccharin-treated microbiota to germ-free (normal) mice made them glucose intolerant.

Lolli the Saccharin by Trinity FateRe-think required

The upshot of all this is that NAS may be doing the very thing we’re trying to avoid. Suez et al. note that the cult of NAS use has coincided with the epidemics of diabetes and obesity – but their results suggest very strongly that, far from being coincidence, it is yet another example of optimism and our hunger for easy solutions diverting our attention from our ignorance of the underlying science.

Grim reaperSo the message is there isn’t a short-cut to dealing with our sugar craving – if we aren’t to go on making ourselves very ill on a big scale we just have to show more self-discipline.


Suez , J. et al. (2014). Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature 514, 181-186.


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.

it’s a small world

Once upon a time I went to Disneyland. My excuse is that it was a long time ago. So long, in fact, that I don’t need to specify where — it was before theme park cloning got going. Goodness knows why I went — given that if I was inclined to sticking pins in things, Mickey Mouse would be a prime target — though, logically, a model of Walt would come first. But one memory of that visit recurs unbidden to this day: the song ‘it’s a small world (after all).’ I know. I shouldn’t blame Disney as it was the Sherman Brothers greatest hit — and what with also writing the scores for Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, they’ve got a lot to answer for. Nevertheless and irritating though the jingle may be, it contains a rather profound line:

There’s so much that we share that it’s time we’re aware, It’s a small world after all’.

And that will do very well as our theme for the day.

SmallWorldFront83_wbYour inner self

A sobering thought about being human is that we’re mostly bugs – that’s to say on a cell to cell basis the microbes in our bodies outnumber us by ten to one. Ten to one: time for lunch, to recycle the old Goon Show gag, but first perhaps you should survey your microbiota – the 1000 or so assorted species of bacteria that have made you their home. Most of them (99%) reside in your digestive tract and we don’t notice them, of course, because they’re so much smaller than the cells of our body (they make up less than 3% of our mass). Sometimes called gut flora, they’re important in squeezing the last ounce of energy from what we eat by helping to digest sugars and they also make some vitamins that we need. You could, then, think of this unseen army of tiny cells as an organ in their own right. Unnoticed they may be but you upset them at your peril, as everyone knows who’s taken a course of antibiotics (e.g., penicillin) to get rid of unwanted bugs.

Bugs tummy

This vast force of bacteria, toiling away on our behalf in the dungeon of our innards, includes two major sub-families, Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes. Don’t worry about pronunciation: think of them as B & F. What’s important is that obese animals (including humans) have about half the number of Bs and double that of Fs, compared to normal. That’s a startling shift – the sort of result that gets scientists thinking: something fishy going on here. But what really gets their antennae twitching is the follow-up result. Each bug has its own genetic material (DNA) carrying a set of genes — different for each species. From faecal samples (i.e. stools) the total number of microbial genes can be estimated and — astonishingly — it turns out that there are several hundred times the number of our own genes. We have about 20,000, the bugs muster several million. But the really provocative result is that this total of microbial genes in our gut drops if we become obese:

Fewer genes = more body fat

More genes (a more diverse microbiome) = healthy status.

Cause or effect?

A good question — that can be answered by man’s best friend. Yes, I’m afraid it’s Mickey again. Mice born under aseptic conditions by Caesarean section don’t have any gut microbes — they’re ‘germ-free’ mice — and they grow up with less body fat than normal mice. However, give them the gut army from a normal mouse and they more than double their body fat in a couple of weeks. The microbiota from an obese mouse makes them gain twice as much fat. What happens if you colonise germ-free mice with human gut microbes? If they’re from someone who’s obese the mice also become obese, if fed a high-fat rather than a normal diet.

Because obesity is all about the balance between energy extracted from food and that expended, all this suggests that obesity-associated microbiomes increase the efficiency of extraction.

But if that’s the case maybe there are some slackers in the bug world – types that are pretty hopeless at food processing. Might they offset obesity? Well, at least one (by the name of Akkermansia muciniphila) does just that — again in mice — and its numbers are much reduced in obese people but go up after gastric bypass surgery that reduces the absorption of nutrients from food. This offers the seductive notion that some types of bug might help to reduce obesity.


You may have spotted a bit of a cause for concern: if the make up of our gut bugs can affect how our bodies work — and especially whether we put on weight — what happens when we zap ourselves with antibiotics? The problem is, of course, that these drugs target a range of bacteria — they’re not particularly choosy — which is why you get diarrhœa when you take penicillin for a throat infection. And it’s not just you. In the UK we consume 30 million antibiotic prescriptions a year: Americans get through over 250 million and their children get an average of 15 courses of antibiotics in their early years.

The problem here is not about antibiotics being wonderful and saving millions of lives but the possibility that they might have long-term effects. Evidence for this has come from Martin Blaser’s group at New York University who showed that some antibiotics make mice put on weight and build up fat. What’s more, a high-fat diet adds to this effect. Remarkably, changes in the mice microbiota occur before they become obese — and the effects are for life. It seems extraordinary that a short drug pulse, such as we might give a child to cure an ear infection, can have permanent effects. The explanation may be that some gut bacteria are better at surviving the drug treatment resulting in a shift of microbiota balance to give more efficient digestion — i.e. greater energy provision.

It may not be coincidence that the escalation in antibiotic use since the 1940s has paralleled the obesity explosion. In 1989 no USA state had an obesity level above 14%; by 2010 none was below 20% — and the national average is now 30%.

Bugs and cancer: drivers or mirrors?

Those who follow this blog will know that where obesity lurks cancer looms. Indeed transferring microbiota to germ-free mice has been shown to promote a wide range of tumours and, conversely, depleting intestinal bacteria reduces the development of liver and colon cancers. It’s also worth noting that bowel cancer occurs more frequently in the large intestine than in the small — which may reflect the much higher microbial density.

Is it a small world after all?

All these findings suggest that our bug contingent can influence the onset of obesity and various cancers and that even brief drug treatments can have permanent effects on its make up. We have only the vaguest idea how this happens and most of the evidence so far comes from Mickey’s rellos. Even so, maybe in time we will be able to manipulate our personal gut micro-worlds to augment our defences against these potent foes.


Martin J. Blaser: Missing microbes, Henry Holt & Company 2014

A Small Helping For Australia

There’s an awful lot of very good things in Australia. Australians for a start. They’re just so kind, open, welcoming and accommodating it makes touring round this vast land a joy. Not merely do they cheerfully find a way to fix anything you want but they’re so polite that no one’s drawn attention to my resemblance to a scientific version of those reconstructed geriatric pop groups (viz the Rolling Stones or whatever) staggering round the place on their Zimmer frames. And they say wonderful things about my talks – that’s how charming they are!!

Greater bilgy

Greater bilby

Of course, you could say of Australia what someone once said of America and Britain: two nations divided by a common language. In the case of Oz you could also add ‘and by a ferociously competitive obsession with sport.’ So it’s wonderfully not home. Even Easter’s different in that here you get chocolate Easter bilbies rather than rabbits. Bilbies, by the way, are a sort of marsupial desert rat related to bandicoots. The lesser version died out in the 1950s so only the greater bilby is left (up to 20 inches long + tail half as long again) and you have to go to the arid deserts to find those. Not the choccy versions obviously: they don’t do too well in the deserts but they’re all over Melbourne:

Easter bilby

Easter bilby

shops full of ’em – and a lot bigger than the real thing. So, together with the egg avalanche, there’s no limit to the number of calories you can consume in celebrating the resurrection of Christ. Coupled with the glorious fact that there’s scarcely any mention of wretched soccer, all these novelties mean you’re never going to be lulled into thinking you’re still in dear old Blighty (or back in the old country as they delightfully put it here).

Hors D’Oeuvres

Even so there are some marked similarities to make you feel at home. One of the least striking is that most people are overweight. That is, I scarcely notice it, coming from what I regard as the global fat capital, i.e. Cambridge. The stats say that that’s not true, of course. The USA does these things better than the UK. Of course it does. But there’s not much in it. More than two-thirds of American adults are overweight and one person in three is obese. For the UK the prediction is that one in three will be obese by 2020. Currently in Australia 63% of the adult population is overweight, a figure that includes 28% who are obese.

The essential point is that there’s stuff all difference between those countries and the really critical thing is that the rates go on soaring. In the U.S. between 1980 and 2000 obesity rates doubled among adults and since 1980 the number of overweight adolescents has tripled. By 2025 one Australian child in three will be in the overweight/obese category.

Main course

The meat in this piece is provided by a report written by a bunch of Australian heavyweights – all Profs from Sydney or wherever. It has the droll title ‘No Time To Weight’ – do I need to explain that or shall I merely apologise for the syntax? ‘Oh c’mon!’ I hear our Aussie readers protest. ‘We’re going to hell in a handcart and you’re wittering about grammar. Typical b***** academic.’ Quite so. Priorities and all that. So the boffins’ idea is to wake everyone up to obesity and get policy-makers and parliamentarians to do something effective.No Time to Weight report

Why is this so important? Probably unnecessary to explain but obesity causes a variety of disorders (diabetes, heart disease, age-related degenerative disease, sleep apnea, gallstones, etc.) but in particular it’s linked to a range of cancers. Avid followers of this BbN blog will recall obesity cropping up umpteen times already in our cancer-themed story (Rasher Than I Thought?/Biting the bitter bullet/Wake up at the back/Twenty winks/Obesity and Cancer/Isn’t Science Wonderful? Obesity Talks to Cancer) and that’s because it significantly promotes cancers of the bowel, kidney, liver, esophagus, pancreas, endometrium, gallbladder, ovaries and breast. The estimate is that if we all had a body mass index (BMI) of less than 25 (the overweight threshold) there would be 12,000 fewer UK cancers per year. Mostly the evidence is of the smoking gun variety: overweight/obese people get these cancers a lot more often than lesser folk but in Obesity Talks to Cancer we looked at recent evidence of a molecular link between obesity and breast cancer.

Entrée (à la French cuisine not North American as in Main course)

Or, as you might say, a side dish of genetics. The obvious question about obesity is ‘What causes it?’ The answer is both complicated and simple. The complexity comes from the gradual accumulation of evidence that there is a substantial genetic (i.e. inherited) component. Many people will have heard of the hormone leptin, a critical regulator of energy balance and therefore of body weight. Mutations in the leptin gene that reduce the level of the hormone cause a constant desire to eat with the predictable consequence. But only a very small number of families have been found who carry leptin mutations and, although other mutations can drive carriers to overeating, they are even rarer.

However, aside from mutations, everyone’s DNA is subtly different (see Policing DNA) – about 1 in every 1000 of the units (bases) that make up our genetic code differs between individuals. All told the guess is that in  90% of the population this type of genetic variation can contribute to their being overweight/obese.

Things are made more complicated by the fact that diet can cause changes in the DNA of pregnant mothers (what’s called an epigenetic effect). In short, if a pregnant woman is obese, diabetic, or consumes too many calories, the obesity trait is passed to her offspring. This DNA ‘imprinting’ activates hormone signaling to increase hunger and inhibit satiety, thereby passing the problem on to the child.Preg Ob

So the genetics is quite complex. But what is simple is the fact that since 1985 the proportion of obese Australians has gone up by over 10-fold. That’s not due to genes misbehaving. As David Katz, the director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center puts it: ‘What has changed while obesity has gone from rare to pandemic is not within, but all around us. We are drowning in calories engineered to be irresistible.’


We might hope that everyone gets theirs but for obesity that’s not the way it works. The boffos’ report estimates that in 2008 obesity and all its works cost Australia a staggering $58.2 billion. Which means, of course, that every man, woman and child is paying a small fortune as the epidemic continues on its unchecked way. The report talks formulaically of promoting ‘Australia-wide action to harmonise and complement efforts in prevention’ and of supporting treatment. It’s also keen that Australia should follow the American Medical Association’s 2013 decision to class obesity as a disease, the idea being that this will help ‘reduce the stigma associated with obesity i.e. that it is not purely a lifestyle choice as a result of eating habits or levels of physical activity.’ Unfortunately this very p.c. stance ignores that fact that obesity is very largely the result of eating habits coupled to levels of physical activity. The best way to lose weight is to eat less, eat more wisely and exercise more.

In 2008 Australian government sources forked out $932.7 million over 9 years for preventative health initiatives, including obesity. This latest report represents another effort in this drive. Everyone should read it but, clear and well written though it is, it looks like a government report, runs to 34 pages and almost no one will give it the time of day.

The problem is that in Australia, as in the UK and the USA, all the well-intentioned propaganda simply isn’t working. As with tobacco, car seat belts and alcohol driving limits, the only solution is legislation, vastly unpopular though that always is – until most folk see sense. Start with the two most obvious targets: ban the sale of foods with excessive sugar levels (especially soft drinks) and make everyone have a BMI measurement at regular intervals, say biannually. Then fine anyone over 25 in successive tests who isn’t receiving some sort of medical treatment.

Amuse bouche

I know: I’ll never get in on that manifesto. But two cheers for ‘No Time To Weight’ and I trust the luminaries who complied it appreciate my puny helping hand from Cambridge. In the meantime, not anticipating any progress on a national front, I’m going to start my own campaign – it’s going to be a bit labour-intensive, one target at a time, but here goes!

The other evening I had dinner in a splendid Italian restaurant (The Yak in Melbourne: very good!). And delightful it would have been had I not shared with two local girls at the next table. One was your archetypal tall, slender, blonde, 25-ish Aussie female – the sort you almost feel could do with a square meal. Her companion of similar age was one of the dirigible models. (You’ll understand I wasn’t looking at them at all: I was with my life’s companion so no chance of that – but I do have very good peripheral vision. Comes from playing a lot of rugby). Each had one of the splendid pasta dishes on offer – but, bizarrely, they also ordered a very large bowl of chips. No prizes for guessing who ate all the fries. Miss Slim didn’t have one – not a single one! (OK, by now I was counting). Her outsize friend had the lot. How could she do that with a shining example of gastronomic sanity sitting opposite?

So c’mon Miss Aussie Airship: you know who you are. Let’s have no more of it. Obesity is not a personal ‘issue.’ Regardless of your calorie intake in one meal, your disgraceful behavior ruined a delightful dining experience for me, and quite possibly several other folk within eyeshot, upset the charming waitress and insulted The Yak’s excellent chef. Just think in future: there’s a place in life for chips – but it’s not with everything.


“Obesity: A National Epidemic and its Impact on Australia”

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.”


Twenty winks

Not now obviously but after you’ve read the first episode of this absorbing tale you may feel a nap is in order, despite the fact that in Wake up at the back we noted that snoring can give you cancer.

Setting aside that hazard, the general finding is that most people require seven or eight hours of sleep to function optimally. Fall short of that, to less than six hours even for one night, and we all know that the consequences may include a degree of grumpiness helped along by a tendency to clumsiness and generally heightened incompetence. If you happen to suffer from hypertension you could measure another result because your blood pressure will be even higher than usual for the rest of the day. However, these are all reversible states, so that real problems only come with more extended sleep deprivation and there is much evidence that this can profoundly affect memory, creativity and emotional stability, as well as leading to heart disease, diabetes and obesity. The molecular drive for the latter is that folk who are short of sleep have lower levels of the hormone leptin (which tells the brain you’ve had enough to eat) but higher levels of ghrelin (appetite stimulant). One week of only four hours nightly kip converts healthy young men to pre-diabetics in terms of their insulin and blood sugar levels.

The cancer link

To all of which must be added the dribble of reports over many years that disrupted sleep patterns, such as result from shift-work, may increase the risk of a variety of cancers (these include breast, prostate, bowel and endometrial cancers and also non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma). The effects are moderate (that is, the risk rise is small – typically up to 20%), making these findings suggestive rather than conclusive, although they are bolstered by a considerable number of studies on animals. So sleep, or rather lack of it, is yet another of these things that seems to affect cancer but for which really hard evidence is lacking. It’s not a9f5f190difficult to see why. You can’t put a number on ‘a good night’s sleep’ (though you can now get phone apps that record your every snort and contortion) nor do we understand the biological consequences of sleep disruption, and then there are the perpetual problems that everyone’s different and cancers take years to show themselves. However, you can put a figure on how you feel about sleep: our friends at the wonderful Karolinska Institute in Stockholm have come up with a Sleepiness Scale (1 = very alert, 9 = very sleepy, great effort to keep awake) – which could replace the traditional grunt when asked ‘How are you?’ ‘Oh, much as usual, about eight on the Karolinska Scale.’

Sleeping Off Breast Cancer

Trawling the literature it seems that the majority of cancer/sleep studies focus on the breast and a word about two of the most recent will suffice to paint the picture. In a large group of Japanese ladies over the age of 40 those who said they slept for less than six hours were markedly more likely to develop breast cancer than those who slept longer. Over nine hours a night (sleep that is) even appeared to give a degree of protection.

The main culprit for the breast cancer/sleep link is shift work, illustrated by the Danish military where women working night-shifts are more prone to breast cancer than those with normal sleep patterns and there is an upward trend in risk with years of night-shift work.

An association with ovarian cancer has also been reported although, somewhat perplexingly, that study didn’t show that the risk got bigger the longer night-shifts were worked. This rather confusing picture may reflect individual variation. As we all know, some folk are ‘larks’ – up at the crack of dawn – my lady wife is one – whereas others are ‘owls’ who perform better the later it is (no prize for guessing what kind of bird I am – bit of domestic incompatibility there!). It may be that ‘owls’ suffer less from night-shift perturbation and they may therefore be more likely to opt for that mode of work – and indeed the Danish study found that ‘larks’ on night-shifts were more likely to get breast cancer. As if that’s not enough, irregular shift patterns make it more difficult for women to conceive and working only nights increases the chances of miscarrying.

Similar results have been found for other cancers, notably of the bowel – 50% more likely to occur in those who sleep an average of less than six hours a night than those who zzzz for over seven. Put another way, the less than six hours risk is about the same as having a first degree relative with the disease or eating lots of red meat – and similar to that for breast cancer.

Mu Treadmill



Mice Sleep Too

It’s not a bad idea to keep in mind that we are very similar to mice – we’ve got more or less the same number of genes and exercising (on a treadmill for example) helps to keep at least some cancers at bay. Another similarity is that sleep deprivation upsets the works so that, for example, in models of colon cancer it reverses the beneficial effects of moderate exercise.

So insomnia is no laughing matter, however it comes about, and next time we’ll put two and two together by looking at the molecular story – after which you really may need forty winks.


Kakizaki, M. et al. (2008).  Sleep duration and the risk of breast cancer: the Ohsaki Cohort Study. Br J Cancer  99, 1502–1505.

Hansen, J. and Lassen, C.F. (2012). Nested case-control study of night shift work and breast cancer risk among women in the Danish military. Occup Environ Med., 69, 551–556.

Bhatti, P. et al. (2012). Nightshift work and risk of ovarian cancer. Occup Environ Med., 0:1–7. doi:10.1136/oemed-2012-101146.

Thompson, C.L. et al. (2011). Short Duration of Sleep Increases Risk of Colorectal Adenoma. Cancer 117, 841–847.

Zielinski, M.R. et al. (2012). Influence of chronic moderate sleep restriction and exercise on inflammation and carcinogenesis in mice. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 26, 672–679.

Wake up at the back

Living with someone of the opposite sex, or getting married as it used to be known, is an interesting experience. One of the things you rapidly discover that your Mum never warned you about is that women are a distinct species.  You missed that revelation in your biology classes? Serves you right for snoozing on the back row but, as a recap of the evidence, consider the following. Species often show major differences in sensory perception – thus our cat is much better than I am at seeing in the dark, though he misses out a bit in daylight as cats don’t have colour vision. When it comes to hearing it’s a bit the other way round: most of the time you can shout at him til you’re hoarse with absolutely no effect – but one faint clink of a food bowl at the back door and, yet again, he’ll set a new Feline Fifty metres Steeplechase record from the front garden. And dogs, as is well known, hear frequencies way beyond what we can pick up.

Not in my lectures!!

The gentle sex has similarly evolved beyond what mere man can manage. Take colour, for example, at which men are, as we’ve noted, quite good – compared to cats. But, as you discover the first time you are taken ‘clothes shopping’ by your wife, other half, inamorata, partner, mistress or whatever, women have evolved far beyond merely spotting that blue is different from red and being able to recite Richard Of York (to remind themselves of the rainbow sequence). They see ‘combinations’ – so you are curtly informed that what has taken your fancy ‘just doesn’t go together’ in the sort of voice that adds ‘any nitwit can see that’ without the need to expend breath on the last seven syllables.

They’re at a similarly lofty level of evolution when it comes to sound. My lady wife avers that I snore – all the time (when asleep, that is) and very loudly. So much so that she tends to use a bed at the opposite end of the house for sleeping and only ventures within sonar range for other purposes. I’d always explained this behaviour as a manifestation of the amazing imagination possessed of the female that us boys are, of course, completely lacking. However, I’ve now come to appreciate that, like Fido (who sleeps in the kitchen), she simply has exquisitely sensitive aural apparatus. So maybe I do snore – but only very quietly or at ultra high frequency, so that I would be undetectable at rest to my own species and only my beloved and the dog would know what was going on (oh, and the cat because he can see the heaving chest).

Which is very reassuring since some fellows at the Universities of Wisconsin and Barcelona have got together to discover that snoring makes you nearly five times more likely to develop cancer. Strictly the problem is sleep disordered breathing (SDB) – which happens when there’s some kind of blockage of the upper airway and, apart from disrupting sleep, it can make you snore. Of course, there’s evidence that sleep disruption can contribute to all sorts of problems from heart disease to car crashes but this is the first study making a link to cancer.

No problem for me (discounting the wife’s super sonar) but should real, habitual snorers panic? Please don’t for most of the usual reservations to this type of study apply – relatively small numbers (1522) for example. The volunteers came from an alluringly named body of men and women called the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort, set up in 1988 for prospective studies of sleep disorders. In fact the interesting ones here are what we might call the Winsomniacs – the 365 of the Cohort who can’t do it rather than the majority of Badger State dreamers. Split in this case into sub-groups of SDB severity – the strongest association being with the most severe SDB. Although the authors did their best to allow for other factors (obesity – a common cause of SDB – diabetes, smoking, etc.) it’s almost impossible in this type of study to eliminate everything bar the one factor you’re focussing on.

The most frequent linked cancer was of the lung, followed by bowel, ovary, endometrial, brain, breast, bladder, and liver. And the cancer risk was up to four-fold greater for the worst afflicted.

Do the boffins have any helpful suggestions? Not really. Those unlucky enough to be severely affected can try a gadget called a continuous positive airway pressure device but, for the rest, console yourselves that the risk is small and the data so far are very preliminary. Put another way, you have more important things to think about – like finding a partner (preferably with sub-standard sonar detection capability) who loves you so much they’re willing to poke you in the ribs whenever you become aurally intrusive.


Javier Nieto, F.J. et al. (2012). Sleep-disordered Breathing and Cancer Mortality: Results from the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 186, Iss. 2, pp 190–194.

Isn’t Science Wonderful? Obesity Talks to Cancer

A couple of week’s ago we looked at how being obese can give cancer a helping hand. I thought this would be useful as most people know there is a link but perhaps not much more than that. The message had two simple parts: (1) When we make extra fat cells they change the metabolism of our bodies through chemical signals that wander around and, in passing, can also drive cancer growth, and (2) Some of the extra fat cells congregate around tumours and give them direct positive vibes (i.e. other, local chemical signals).

But you may have spotted that I didn’t actually say what these ‘signals’ are – for the very good reason that we know rather little about them. Step forward, right on cue, Ines Barone, Suzanne Fuqua and friends from the University of Calabria and Baylor College of Medicine, Houston with a wonderful paper that’s just been published. Wonderful because it’s got so much data I’m green with envy but also because, like most excellent science papers, the key message is simple: normal cells that have moved into the neighbourhood can indeed talk directly to tumour cells. And the messenger is … leptin!

That’s astonishing. Even those with only a smattering of knowledge about how we work will know that leptin plays a key role in regulating energy balance. It’s a protein – a hormone – that circulates in our blood at levels roughly proportional to body fat. Its job is to signal the ‘full’ state, i.e. to reduce appetite. Somewhat perversely, obesity usually causes abnormally high leptin levels but it doesn’t work very well because the body has become resistant to its signal – much as happens with insulin in type 2 diabetes.

The new results show that leptin, released from nearby cells, can bind to cancer cells and make them do two things: (1) Release a chemical that tells the adjacent cells to send out even more leptin, and (2) Make proteins that help the tumour cells grow and invade.

There are a few wrinkles to these results. The study was on breast cancer cells with a particular mutation (in a receptor for the hormone estrogen) and the ‘groupies’ providing the leptin turned out not to be fat cells but fibroblasts – part of the supportive framework of cells and tissues – so they’re ‘cancer-associated fibroblasts’ (CAFs). And when the CAFs release leptin it floods out and the tumour cells embrace it and make yet more receptors for leptin to bind to on their surface.

But these details matter less than the key point: for at least some types of cancer cell a hormone often made in excessive amounts in obesity can signal directly to tumour cells, telling them to grow and spread. This doesn’t mean that all breast tumours, yet alone all cancers, respond to leptin. What it does show is that a key factor in obesity can talk directly to some types of tumour cell. It’s another example of the painstaking way in which science usually proceeds and, assuming the results are reproducible, we have one more little bit of the jig-saw.


Barone, I., Catalano, S., Gelsomino, L. et al. (2012). Leptin Mediates Tumor−Stromal Interactions That Promote the Invasive Growth of Breast Cancer Cells. Cancer Research 72, 1416-1427. 

Biting the bitter bullet

The other day we took a short trip around obesity (Obesity and Cancer) in the course of which we noted that the former is a bad thing. So, you might say, they make a good pair – indeed they quite often come hand-in-hand, as obesity significantly increases the risk of quite a lot of cancers as well as other unpleasant conditions. The nasty effects include heart diseases and diabetes, a collection of problems often referred to as metabolic syndrome.

Fed up?

Obesity is usually caused by eating too much of the wrong stuff whilst parked on your rear end. True enough, but folk sometimes get a bit cheesed off by repeatedly being told to do something about it. As it happens, turning to Cheddar, if you can face the stuff, may actually help weight loss as cheese is high in protein and fills you up. And you might just go for that escape route when you’ve been leaned on by a recent article that, in effect, calls for draconian measures to limit the amount of sugar we eat. To be slightly more precise, the target is the USA because, as is well known, Americans lead the world in pretty well everything, including bad eating habits. The scientific dynamite propelling the charge is that sugar consumption worldwide has gone up three-fold in the last 50 years. The average American now eats over 600 grams of the stuff every day, a feat that leaves the rest of the world scarcely within range of a podium spot. It may seem a bit odd to be left trailing at anything by the most obese nation in the world (let’s leave Nauru –pop. 9265 – and a few other South Sea islands out of it)  but the link here is, of course, that sugar is a great source of calories and that the more calories you shovel down – in whatever form – the bigger you tend to become. But don’t get too cheeky about Yankee obesity as us Brits aren’t in great shape either.

Condensed facts

Very roughly an ‘average’ person needs about 2,100 calories a day. 600 grams of sugar would give between one third and one quarter of that total requirement. For an historical perspective that’s about 14 times as much sugar as the denizens of Great Britain were allowed during the second world war under rationing – a period when our diet is generally considered to have made us healthier than we’ve ever been. So you could say an element of control has been lost.

Calorific confusion

The ‘2,100 calories’ above are ‘food calories’, the unit sometimes used in nutritional contexts. It’s 1000 times bigger than ‘scientific’ calories, or gram calories (cal). Scientifically therefore, we mean 2,100 kilocalories (kcal). Which is why your fruit juice carton may tell you one glass contains 50 kcal. And, just to stop you asking, 1 calorie is the heat (energy) you need to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water from 14.5oC to 15.5oC.

An all-round view of the problem

Sugar consumption has ski-rocketed, eating too much of it unbalances your diet and bad eating habits can cause obesity and metabolic syndrome. But these things aren’t black and white: 20% of obese people have normal metabolism and a normal lifespan whilst 40% of those of normal weight will get metabolic syndrome diseases. So, whilst obesity indicates metabolic abnormality, it is not per se the cause.

The underlying science remains a matter of debate – a story well summarized by Gary Taubes. What is not in question is that we eat more sugar than we need and the real crunch is that sugar is like tobacco and alcohol – no, it doesn’t make you smelly or do Sinatra impressions – but it is addictive. It actually manipulates your pathetic brain cells so you keep asking for more.

On your Marx

So we’re seduced into eating more and more of something that can help us get fat and ill. What’s to be done? Lenin, who was fond of asking this question, would have dealt with it in a trice by limiting sugar supplies to one tenth of the dietary minimum and seeing who survived. Ah! The good old days. But the authors of the recent article had to come up with a pc 21st century equivalent. Of course! Taxation. And they’ve a point – you can tell people that smoking will give them lung cancer til you’re blue in the face but the only thing that stops them committing suicide is jacking the price up. Don’t ask me. Something to do with human nature. So it sounds like a good idea – but to have an effect on sugar you’d need a huge increase across a vast range of foods – fruit juice, ‘sports’ drinks, chocolates, sweets, cakes – forget it.

Do I have a solution? Of course! Bring back rationing. For all foods. Set at the UK second world war levels. Now we’d think about what we eat – carbohydrate, protein and fat – reverse obesity trends, solve world food problem, slash health service costs, cut queues at supermarkets (so they’d be normarkets). And we’d be rid of most of those damned cheffy t.v. programmes. Vote for me!!


Lustig, R.H., Schmidt, L.A. and Brindis, C.D. (2012). The toxic truth about sugar. Nature 482, 27-29.

Gary Taubes (2011). Is Sugar Toxic? The New York Times.

Obesity and Cancer

Science, you could say, comes in two sorts. There’s the stuff we more or less understand – and there’s the rest. We’re pretty secure with the earth being round and orbiting the sun, the heart being a pump connected to a network of tubes that keeps us alive, DNA carrying the genetic code – and a few other things. But human beings are curious souls and we tend to be fascinated by what we don’t know and can’t see – why the Dance of the Seven Veils caught on, I guess.

Scientists are, of course, the extreme example – they spend their lives pursuing the unknown (and, as Fred Hoyle gloomily remarked, they’re always wrong and yet they always go on). But in this media era they pay a public price for their doggedness because they get asked the pressing questions of the moment. Is global warning going to finish us off soon, why is British sport generally so poor and – today’s teaser – does being fat make you more likely to get cancer?

A few facts go a long way

The major cancers have become familiar because the numbers afflicted are so staggering – but the one good thing is that the epidemiology can tell us something about the disease. Thus for cancers of the bowel, endometrium, kidney, oesophagus and pancreas and also for postmenopausal breast cancer there is clear evidence that being overweight or obese makes you more susceptible. In other words, if you compare large groups with those cancers to equally large numbers without, the disease groups contain significantly more people who are fat. We should add that the above list is conservative. A number of other cancers are almost certainly more common in those who are overweight (brain, thyroid, liver, ovary, prostate and stomach tumours as well as multiple myeloma, leukaemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and malignant melanoma in men).

Sizing up the problem

The usual measure is Body Mass Index (BMI) – your weight (in kilograms) divided by the square of your height (in metres). A BMI of 25 to 29.9 and you’re overweight; over 30 is obese. In England in 2009 just over 61% of adults and 28% of children (aged 2-10) were overweight or obese and of these, 23% of adults and 14% of children were obese. And every year these figures get bigger.

How big is the risk?

Impossible to say exactly – for one thing we don’t know how long you need to be exposed to the risk (i.e. being overweight) for cancer to develop but in 2010 just over 5% of the total of new cancer cases in the UK was due to excess weight. That’s another conservative estimate, but it means at least 17,000 out of 309,000 cases, with bowel and breast cancers being the major sites.

What’s going on?

Showing an association is a good start but the important thing is to find out which molecules make that link. For obesity and cancer detail remains obscure but broad outlines are emerging, summarised in the sketch. In obesity fat (adipose) cells increase in both number and size (so it’s a double problem: more cells – and the fat cells themselves are fatter). As this happens other cells are recruited to adipose tissue and, from this cellular cooperative, signalling proteins are released that have the potential to drive tumours. This picture is similar to that of the microenvironment of tumours themselves, where many types of cell infiltrate the new growth. Initially this inflammatory and immune response aims to kill the tumour but if it fails the balance of signalling shifts so that it actually helps the tumour grow. In addition to signals from fat cells themselves, obesity is usually associated with increased levels of circulating growth hormones (e.g., insulin) and of lipids, both of which may also promote tumour development.

Thus many signals with cancerous potential arise in obese individuals. In principle these could initiate tumour growth or they could accelerate it in cancers that have started to develop independently of obesity. So it is complicated – but at least as new signalling strands emerge they offer new targets for drug therapy.

In obesity abnormal signals from fatty tissue can combine with others arising from perturbed metabolism to help cancers develop


World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) Panel on Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer (WCRF, 2007).