Transparently Obvious


Scientists have a well-earned reputation for doing odd things – by which I mean coming up with a ‘finding’ that leaves me, at least, wondering how, in the name of all things wonderful, they ever got money to do their study. To be fair, it’s the ‘social scientists’ – rather than the ‘real’ lot – that excel in this field. An example? Take your pick. They crop up pretty well weekly in the press. I liked the one on how something called ‘personal congruence’ affects marriage survival. The more congruence you and your partner have the better your chances: if, over time, your congruence goes down the tubes, your relationship will surely follow. But what on earth is congruence? Seemingly it’s a ‘state of agreeing.’ Lots of it equals harmony, loss of it = discord. So, it is what you remember from school geometry: it means more or less equal. Wow! Now I’ve grasped the upshot of this ‘study’: agreeably happy couples tend to make it: pairings based on whacking each other with frying pans tend to end in tears. Why didn’t they tell us earlier!!



Fortunately, in my world, even the weirdies usually turn out to be quite sensible, once you know what’s going on. Many moons ago a girl-friend asked me if I’d like to see her collection of axolotls. Not having a clue what she was on about I gave it an excited ‘yes please’. Whilst it mayn’t have been what I was hoping for (I was very young back then), I immediately fell in love with these wonderful amphibians that I’d never heard of as she explained what I should have known: these ‘Mexican walking fish’ have very large embryos which makes them particularly useful for studying development. These sensational salamanders really are amazing, not least because they can regenerate entire limbs after they’ve been chopped off.

More recently there’s been another unlikely recruit to the scientific armoury: the zebrafish – a tropical freshwater fish from the Himalayas. This mighty minnow was the first vertebrate to be cloned which led to its being genetically modified to give a transparent variety. That’s all good fun but what on earth is the point of a see-through fish? Well, in Betrayed by Nature we pointed out that you can actually watch tumours growing in transparent zebrafish and we got so excited by that we even included a photo – kindly provided by Richard White of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. The cancer was a melanoma which had grown into a black mass about 1 cm in diameter in the fish’s body after a small number of tumour cells had been injected a couple of weeks earlier.

And the driver is …

Nearly 15 years ago, just as the first complete sequence of human DNA was being unveiled, Mike Stratton and his colleagues at the Sanger Centre in Cambridge discovered a mutation that arises in about two-thirds of all malignant melanomas. It’s in a gene called BRAF. The protein made by the gene is an enzyme that’s part of a signalling pathway that pushes cells to divide. The mutation changes the shape of BRAF protein so it works 24/7 as an enzyme: the pathway is no longer controlled by a message from the world beyond the cell. It’s a ‘molecular switch’ that’s been flipped by mutation to act as a cancer ‘driver.’

Richard White and his colleagues showed that the same mutation drove melanoma development in zebrafish and that when it did so something remarkable happened. As the tumours got going they turned on a gene that is normally only required during the first 72 hours after fertilization. The gene’s called crestin – because it’s switched on in a tissue called the neural crest where crestin protein helps to form the bony support for the gills. After that it’s switched off and crestin protein never appears again. Except in the pigment-containing cells called melanocytes when they are turning into a tumour.

Seeing the problem

In a great example of how science can work, Charles Kaufman, Leonard Zon and colleagues in Boston and other centres took this finding and made another transgenic variant of the transparent zebrafish. They cut out the stretch of DNA that controls whether the crestin gene is ‘on’ or ‘off’ and hooked it up to a gene that makes a green fluorescent protein (GFP). Result: when the machinery of a cell turns crestin on, GFP is also made – and the cell glows green under the appropriate light. Hence you would expect to see a glowing neural crest early in development but thereafter a non-glowing fish. Unless it has a melanoma. And Zon & Co saw exactly that. Because green fluorescent protein glows so brightly, a single cell shows up and it turned out that whenever one green cell was detected it always went on to expand and grow into a large melanoma tumour.

1 cell to mel

Tracking a single cell turning into a tumour over 6, 9, 11.5 and 17 weeks. The green fluorescence marks an early developmental gene (crestin) being re-activated in a melanoma tumour (from Kaufman et al., 2016).

But why might it be useful to ‘see’ single cells?

Since the original finding by Stratton & Co more detailed studies have confirmed that mutated BRAF is indeed an important ‘driver’ in about two-thirds of malignant melanoma. But here’s the odd thing: lots of melanocytes (the cells that can turn into melanomas) have mutated BRAF – but they don’t become cancerous. Why not? And there’s something else: it’s well-known that ultraviolet radiation in sunlight causes many melanomas and they do indeed often arise on exposed skin – but they can also crop up in places where, as they say, the sun doesn’t shine. So clearly, important though mutated BRAF and sunlight are, there’s something else that’s critical for malignant melanoma.

The Kaufman experiment was remarkable, not least because it offers a way of getting at this key question of what happens in a cell to kick it off as a tumour, by comparison with a near neighbour that remains ‘normal.’

The tumour cells used in this model carry mutated BRAF and another gene, P53, was knocked out. This gives two major genetic drivers and it may be that further genetic changes aren’t needed. If that’s the case, then the decisive push must come either from epigenetic changes (that affect gene expression without change in DNA sequence) or from adaptations of the tumour microenvironment to provide an optimal niche for expansion. At the moment we don’t know very much about these critical areas of cancer biology. Being able to follow single cells may lead us to the answers.

Keep your eye on the transparent minnows!


Kaufman, C.K., Zon, L.I. et al. (2016). A zebrafish melanoma model reveals emergence of neural crest identity during melanoma initiation. Science 351, Issue 6272, pp. DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2197



Holiday Reading (3) – Stopping the Juggernaut

The mutations that drive cancers fall into two major groups: those that reduce or eliminate the activity of affected proteins and those that have the opposite effect and render the protein abnormally active. It’s intuitively easy to see how the latter work: if a protein (or more than one) in a pathway that tells cells to proliferate becomes more efficient the process is accelerated. Less obvious is how losing an activity might have a similar effect but this comes about because the process by which one cell becomes two (called the cell cycle) is controlled by both positive and negative factors (accelerators and brakes if you will). This concept of a balancing act – signals pulling in opposite directions – is a common theme in biology. In the complex and ever changing environment of a cell the pressure to reproduce is balanced by cues that ask crucial questions. Are there sufficient nutrients available to support growth? Is the DNA undamaged, i.e. in a fit state to be replicated? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’ the cell cycle machinery applies the brakes, so that operations are suspended until circumstances change. The loss of negative regulators releases a critical restraint so that cells have a green light to divide even when they should not – a recipe for cancer.

Blanc sides.004

The cell cycle.

Cells are stimulated by growth factors to leave a quiescent state (G0) and enter the cell cycle – two growth phases (G1 & G2), S phase where DNA is duplicated and mitosis (M) in which the cells divide to give to identical daughter cells. Checkpoints can arrest progression if, for example, DNA is damaged. 

We’re all familiar with this kind of message tug-of-war at the level of the whole animal. We’ve eaten a cream cake and the schoolboy within is saying ‘go on, have another’ whilst the voice of wisdom is whispering ‘if you go on for long enough you’ll end up spherical.’

Because loss of key negative regulators occurs in almost all cancers it is a high priority to find ways of replacing inactivated or lost genes. Thus far, however, successful ‘gene therapy’ approaches have not been forthcoming with perhaps the exception of the emerging field of immunotherapy. The aim here is to boost the activity of the immune system of an individual – in other words to give an innate anti-cancer defense a helping hand. The immune system can affect solid cancers through what’s become known as the tumour microenvironment – the variety of cells and messengers that flock to the site of the abnormal growth. We’ve referred to these as ‘groupies’ and they include white blood cells. They’re drawn to the scene of the crime by chemical signals released by the tumour – the initial aim being to liquidate the intruder (i.e. tumour cells). However, if this fails, a two-way communication sees would-be killers converted to avid supporters that are essential for cancer development and spread.

Blanc sides.002

The tumour microenvironment. Tumour cells release chemical messengers that attract other types of cell, in particular those that mediate the immune response. If the cancer cells are not eliminated a two-way signaling system is established that helps tumour development.

There is much optimism that this will evolve into a really effective therapy but it is too early for unreserved confidence.

The obstacle of reversing mutations that eliminate the function of a gene has led to the current position in which practically all anti-cancer agents in use are inhibitors, that is, they block the activity of a protein (or proteins) resulting in the arrest of cell proliferation – which may ultimately lead to cell death. Almost all these drugs are not specific for tumour cells: they hit some component of the cell replication machinery and will block division in any cell they reach – which is why so many give rise to the side-effects notoriously associated with cancer chemotherapy. For example, the taxanes – widely used in this context – stick to protein cables to prevent them from pulling duplicated DNA strands apart so that cells, in effect, become frozen in final stages of division. Other classes of agent target different aspects of the cell cycle.

It is somewhat surprising that non-tumour specific agents work as well as they do but their obvious shortcomings have provided a major incentive for the development of ‘specific’ drugs – meaning ones that hit only tumour cells and leave normal tissue alone. Several of these have come into use over the past 15 years and more are in various stages of clinical trials. They’re specific because they knock out the activity of mutant proteins that are made only in tumour cells. Notable examples are Zelboraf® manufactured by Roche (hits the mutated form of a cell messenger – called BRAF – that drives a high proportion of malignant melanomas) and Gleevec® (Novartis AG: blocks a hybrid protein – BCR-ABL – that is usually formed in a type of leukemia).

These ‘targeted therapies’ are designed to not so much to poke the blancmange as to zap it by knocking out the activity of critical mutant proteins that are the product of cancer evolution. And they have produced spectacular remissions. However, in common with all other anti-cancer drugs, they suffer from the shortcoming that, almost inevitably, tumours develop resistance to their effects and the disease re-surfaces. The most remarkable and distressing aspect of drug resistance is that it commonly occurs on a timescale of months.

And being outwitted

Tumour cells use two tactics to neutralize anything thrown at them before it can neutralize them. One is to treat the agent as garbage and activate proteins in the cell membrane that pump it out. That’s pretty smart but what’s really staggering is the flexibility cells show in adapting their signal pathways to counter the effect of a drug blocking a specific target. Just about any feat of molecular gymnastics that you can imagine has been shown to occur, ranging from switching to other pathways in the signalling network to short-circuit the block, to evolving secondary mutations in the target mutant protein so that the drug can no longer stick to it. Launching specific drugs at cells may give them a mighty poke in a particularly tender spot, and indeed many cells may die as a result, but almost inevitably some survive. The blancmange shakes itself, comes up with a counter and gets down to business again. This quite extraordinary resilience of tumour cells derives from the infinite adaptability of the genome and we might do well to reflect that in trying to come up with anti-cancer drugs we are taking on an adversary that has overcome the challenges involved in generating the umpteen million species to have emerged during the earth’s lifetime.

Not the least disheartening aspect of this scenario is that when tumours recur after an initial drug treatment they are often more efficient at propagating themselves, i.e. more aggressive, than their precursors.

Trouble With The Neighbours

It may seem odd to the point of negligence that a problem mankind has been grappling with since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians should, within the last ten years or so, be shown to have a whole new dimension, scarcely conceived hitherto. This hidden world, often now called the tumour microenvironment, is created as solid tumours develop and attract a variety of normal cells from the host to form a cellular cloud that envelops them and supports their growth (as we noted in Cooperative Cancer Groupies). We shouldn’t beat ourselves up for being slow to grasp its existence yet alone its importance – just take it as a reminder of the multi-faceted complexity that is cancer.

It’s true that over one hundred years ago the London physician Stephen Paget came up with his “seed and soil” idea – the notion that when cells escape from a primary tumour and spread to secondary sites (metastasis) they need to find a suitable spot that will nourish their growth, otherwise they perish – a fate that befalls most of them, fortunately for us.

But in the twenty-first century …

Perceptive though that idea was, it didn’t relate to the goings on in the vicinity of primary tumours – where the current picture is indeed of a cosmopolitan crowd of cellular groupies being recruited as the tumor starts to grow such that they infiltrate and closely interact with the cancer cells. The groupies are attracted by chemical messengers released by tumour cells – but it becomes a two-way communication, with messenger proteins shuttling to and fro between the different cell types.

Tumor uenvirThe tumour neighbourhood.

Two-way communication between host cells and tumor cells.

 White blood cells (e.g., lymphocytes and macrophages) are one group that succumbs to the magnetism of tumours. They’re part of the immune response that initially tries to eliminate the abnormal growth but, in an extraordinary transformation, when tumour cells manage to evade this defense the recruited cells change sides so to speak, switching their action to release signals that actively support tumor growth. The idea of boosting the initial anti-tumour response, thereby using the host defence system to increase the efficiency of tumour elimination, is the basis of immunotherapy, a popular research field at present to which we will return in a later piece.

Who’s who among the groupies

The finding that cells flooding into the ambience of a tumour can affect growth of the cancer has focussed attention on identifying all the constituents of the cellular cloud and unraveling their actions. Two recent studies by Claudio Isella from the University of Turin and Alexandre Calon from Barcelona, with their colleagues, have looked at a type of bowel cancer that has a particularly poor prognosis and used an ingenious ploy to lift the veil on who’s doing what to whom in the tumour milieu.

The tumours were initially classified on the basis of a genetic signature – that is, a snapshot of which genes are active in a tumour sample – ‘switched on’ or ‘expressed’ in the jargon – meaning that the information encoded in a stretch of DNA sequence is being used to make a functional gene product, usually a protein. They then used the crafty tactic of implanting human tumour cells into mice (the mice are ‘immunocompromised’ so that they don’t reject the human cells), separated the major types of cell in the tumours that grew and then looked at the genes expressed in those sub-sets. Remarkably, it emerged that, of the cell groupies that infiltrate into primary tumours, fibroblasts are particularly potent at driving tumour growth and metastasis. Fibroblasts are a cell type that makes the molecular scaffold that gives structure and shape to the various tissues and organs in animals – so it’s a surprise, to say the least, to find that cells with a rather mundane day job can play an important role in cancer progression. In this model system the sequence differences between corresponding human and mouse genes confirm that the predominant driver is mouse cells infiltrating the human tumours. Perhaps it shouldn’t be quite such a shock to find fibroblasts dabbling in cancer as we have met cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) before as cells that, by releasing leptin, can promote the growth and invasion of breast cancer cells (in Isn’t Science Wonderful? Obesity Talks to Cancer).

How useful might this be?

As ever, this is just one more small step. However, the other key finding from this work is that a critical signal for the CAFs is a protein called transforming growth factor beta (TGFβ) and a small molecule that blocks its signal inhibits metastasis of human tumour cells in the mouse model. So yet again the cancer biologist’s best friend gives a glimmering of hope for human therapy.


Isella, C. et al. (2015). Stromal contribution to the colorectal cancer transcriptome. Nature Genet.

Calon, A. et al. (2015). Stromal gene expression defines poor-prognosis subtypes in colorectal cancer. Nature Genet.