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.