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Tackling Cancer Metastasis with Engineered Blood Platelets

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Tara Deans
Credit: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering, Salt Lake City

When cancer cells spread to new parts of the body in a process called metastasis, they often get there by traveling through the bloodstream. To avoid alerting the immune system and possibly triggering their demise, cancer cells coax circulating blood platelets to glom onto their surfaces and mask them from detection. This deceptive arrangement has raised a tantalizing possibility: What if blood platelets could be programmed to recognize and take out those metastasizing cancer cells?

Tara Deans, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, was recently awarded a 2019 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to do exactly that. It’s an exciting opportunity for a researcher who stumbled onto this innovative strategy quite by accident.

Deans is a bioengineer and expert in designing synthetic gene circuits. These circuits consist of small collections of genetic “parts” that can be assembled and integrated to program cells to behave differently than their natural counterparts [1]. In her initial work, Deans got these specialized gene circuits to prompt blood-forming stem cells to mass-produce platelets in the lab.

But blood platelets are unusual cells. They’re packed with many proteins that help to repair small nicks in blood vessels and stop the bleeding when we’re injured. Blood platelets do so even though they lack a nucleus and DNA to encode and make any of the proteins. Their protein cargo is pre-packaged and comes strictly from the bone marrow cells, called megakaryocytes, that produce them.

Deans realized that engineering platelets might pose a rare opportunity. She could wire the needed circuitry into the blood-forming stem cells and engineer them to make any desired therapeutic proteins, which are then loaded into the blood platelets for their 8- to 10-day lifespan. She started out producing blood platelets that could safely carry functional replacement enzymes in people with certain rare metabolic disorders.

As this research progressed, Deans got some troubling personal news: A friend was diagnosed with a blood cancer. At the time, Deans didn’t know much about the diagnosis. But, in reading about her friend’s cancer, she learned how metastasizing tumor cells interact with platelets.

That’s when Deans had her “aha” moment: maybe the engineered platelets could also be put to work in preventing metastasizing tumor cells from spreading.

Now, with her New Innovator Award, Deans will pursue this novel approach by engineering platelets to carry potentially promising cancer-fighting proteins. In principle, they could be tailored to fight breast, lung, and various other cancer types. Ultimately, she hopes that platelets could be engineered to target and kill circulating cancer cells before they move into other tissues.

There’s plenty of research ahead to work out the details of targeting the circulating cancer cells and then testing them in animal models before this strategy could ever be attempted in people. But Deans is excited about the path forward, and thinks that platelets hold great promise to function as unique drug delivery devices. It has not escaped her notice that this approach could work not only for controlling the spread of cancer cells, but also in treating other medical conditions.

Reference:

[1] Genetic circuits to engineer tissues with alternative functions. Healy CP, Deans TL. J Biol Eng. 2019 May 3;13:39.

Links:

Metastatic Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Deans Lab (University of Utah, Salt Lake City)

Deans Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute


Insurance Status Helps Explain Racial Disparities in Cancer Diagnosis

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Diverse human hands
Credit: iStock/jmangostock

Women have the best odds of surviving breast cancer if their disease is caught at an early stage, when treatments are most likely to succeed. Major strides have been made in the early detection of breast cancer in recent years. But not all populations have benefited equally, with racial and ethnic minorities still more likely to be diagnosed with later-stage breast cancer than non-Hispanic whites. Given that recent observance of Martin Luther King Day, I thought that it would be particularly appropriate to address a leading example of health disparities.

A new NIH-funded study of more than 175,000 U.S. women diagnosed with breast cancer from 2010-2016 has found that nearly half of the troubling disparity in breast cancer detection can be traced to lack of adequate health insurance. The findings suggest that improving insurance coverage may help to increase early detection and thereby reduce the disproportionate number of breast cancer deaths among minority women.

Naomi Ko, Boston University School of Medicine, has had a long interest in understanding the cancer disparities she witnesses first-hand in her work as a medical oncologist. For the study published in JAMA Oncology, she teamed up with epidemiologist Gregory Calip, University of Illinois Cancer Center, Chicago [1]. Their goal was to get beyond documenting disparities in breast cancer and take advantage of available data to begin to get at why such disparities exist and what to do about them.

Disparities in breast cancer outcomes surely stem from a complicated mix of factors, including socioeconomic factors, culture, diet, stress, environment, and biology. Ko and Calip focused their attention on insurance, thinking of it as a factor that society can collectively modify.

Many earlier studies had shown a link between insurance and cancer outcomes [2]. It also stood to reason that broad differences among racial and ethnic minorities in their access to adequate insurance might drive some of the observed cancer disparities. But, Ko and Calip asked, just how big a factor was it?

To find out, they looked to the NIH’s Surveillance Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program, run by the National Cancer Institute. The SEER Program is an authoritative source of information on cancer incidence and survival in the United States.

The researchers focused their attention on 177,075 women of various races and ethnicities, ages 40 to 64. All had been diagnosed with invasive stage I to III breast cancer between 2010 and 2016.

The researchers found that a higher proportion of women receiving Medicaid or who were uninsured received a diagnosis of advanced stage III breast cancer compared with women with health insurance. Black, American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Hispanic women also had higher odds of receiving a late-stage diagnosis.

Overall, their sophisticated statistical analyses traced up to 47 percent of the racial/ethnic differences in the risk of locally advanced disease to differences in health insurance. Such late-stage diagnoses and the more extensive treatment regimens that go with them are clearly devastating for women with breast cancer and their families. But, the researchers note, they’re also costly for society, due to lost productivity and escalating treatment costs by stage of breast cancer.

These researchers surely aren’t alone in recognizing the benefit of early detection. Last week, an independent panel convened by NIH called for enhanced research to assess and explore how to reduce health disparities that lead to unequal access to health care and clinical services that help prevent disease.

References:

[1] Association of Insurance Status and Racial Disparities With the Detection of Early-Stage Breast Cancer. Ko NY, Hong S, Winn RA, Calip GS. JAMA Oncol. 2020 Jan 9.

[2] The relation between health insurance coverage and clinical outcomes among women with breast cancer. Ayanian JZ, Kohler BA, Abe T, Epstein AM. N Engl J Med. 1993 Jul 29;329(5):326-31.

[3] Cancer Stat Facts: Female Breast Cancer. National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program.

Links:

Cancer Disparities (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Breast Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Naomi Ko (Boston University)

Gregory Calip (University of Illinois Cancer Center, Chicago)

NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Cancer Institute; National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities


Giving Thanks for Biomedical Research

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This Thanksgiving, Americans have an abundance of reasons to be grateful—loving family and good food often come to mind. Here’s one more to add to the list: exciting progress in biomedical research. To check out some of that progress, I encourage you to watch this short video, produced by NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Engineering (NIBIB), that showcases a few cool gadgets and devices now under development.

Among the technological innovations is a wearable ultrasound patch for monitoring blood pressure [1]. The patch was developed by a research team led by Sheng Xu and Chonghe Wang, University of California San Diego, La Jolla. When this small patch is worn on the neck, it measures blood pressure in the central arteries and veins by emitting continuous ultrasound waves.

Other great technologies featured in the video include:

Laser-Powered Glucose Meter. Peter So and Jeon Woong Kang, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, and their collaborators at MIT and University of Missouri, Columbia have developed a laser-powered device that measures glucose through the skin [2]. They report that this device potentially could provide accurate, continuous glucose monitoring for people with diabetes without the painful finger pricks.

15-Second Breast Scanner. Lihong Wang, a researcher at California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, and colleagues have combined laser light and sound waves to create a rapid, noninvasive, painless breast scan. It can be performed while a woman rests comfortably on a table without the radiation or compression of a standard mammogram [3].

White Blood Cell Counter. Carlos Castro-Gonzalez, then a postdoc at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, and colleagues developed a portable, non-invasive home monitor to count white blood cells as they pass through capillaries inside a finger [4]. The test, which takes about 1 minute, can be carried out at home, and will help those undergoing chemotherapy to determine whether their white cell count has dropped too low for the next dose, avoiding risk for treatment-compromising infections.

Neural-Enabled Prosthetic Hand (NEPH). Ranu Jung, a researcher at Florida International University, Miami, and colleagues have developed a prosthetic hand that restores a sense of touch, grip, and finger control for amputees [5]. NEPH is a fully implantable, wirelessly controlled system that directly stimulates nerves. More than two years ago, the FDA approved a first-in-human trial of the NEPH system.

If you want to check out more taxpayer-supported innovations, take a look at NIBIB’s two previous videos from 2013 and 2018 As always, let me offer thanks to you from the NIH family—and from all Americans who care about the future of their health—for your continued support. Happy Thanksgiving!

References:

[1] Monitoring of the central blood pressure waveform via a conformal ultrasonic device. Wang C, Li X, Hu H, Zhang, L, Huang Z, Lin M, Zhang Z, Yun Z, Huang B, Gong H, Bhaskaran S, Gu Y, Makihata M, Guo Y, Lei Y, Chen Y, Wang C, Li Y, Zhang T, Chen Z, Pisano AP, Zhang L, Zhou Q, Xu S. Nature Biomedical Engineering. September 2018, 687-695.

[2] Evaluation of accuracy dependence of Raman spectroscopic models on the ratio of calibration and validation points for non-invasive glucose sensing. Singh SP, Mukherjee S, Galindo LH, So PTC, Dasari RR, Khan UZ, Kannan R, Upendran A, Kang JW. Anal Bioanal Chem. 2018 Oct;410(25):6469-6475.

[3] Single-breath-hold photoacoustic computed tomography of the breast. Lin L, Hu P, Shi J, Appleton CM, Maslov K, Li L, Zhang R, Wang LV. Nat Commun. 2018 Jun 15;9(1):2352.

[4] Non-invasive detection of severe neutropenia in chemotherapy patients by optical imaging of nailfold microcirculation. Bourquard A, Pablo-Trinidad A, Butterworth I, Sánchez-Ferro Á, Cerrato C, Humala K, Fabra Urdiola M, Del Rio C, Valles B, Tucker-Schwartz JM, Lee ES, Vakoc BJ9, Padera TP, Ledesma-Carbayo MJ, Chen YB, Hochberg EP, Gray ML, Castro-González C. Sci Rep. 2018 Mar 28;8(1):5301.

[5] Enhancing Sensorimotor Integration Using a Neural Enabled Prosthetic Hand System

Links:

Sheng Xu Lab (University of California San Diego, La Jolla)

So Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

Lihong Wang (California Institute of Technology, Pasadena)

Video: Lihong Wang: Better Cancer Screenings

Carlos Castro-Gonzalez (Madrid-MIT M + Visión Consortium, Cambridge, MA)

Video: Carlos Castro-Gonzalez (YouTube)

Ranu Jung (Florida International University, Miami)

Video: New Prosthetic System Restores Sense of Touch (Florida International)

NIH Support: National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Cancer Institute; Common Fund


Caught on Video: Cancer Cells in Act of Cannibalism

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Tumors rely on a variety of tricks to grow, spread, and resist our best attempts to destroy them. Now comes word of yet another of cancer’s surprising stunts: when chemotherapy treatment hits hard, some cancer cells survive by cannibalizing other cancer cells.

Researchers recently caught this ghoulish behavior on video. In what, during this Halloween season, might look a little bit like The Blob, you can see a down-for-the-count breast cancer cell (green), treated earlier with the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin, gobbling up a neighboring cancer cell (red). The surviving cell delivers its meal to internal compartments called lysosomes, which digest it in a last-ditch effort to get some nourishment and keep going despite what should have been a lethal dose of a cancer drug.

Crystal Tonnessen-Murray, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of James Jackson, Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans, captured these dramatic interactions using time-lapse and confocal microscopy. When Tonnessen-Murray saw the action, she almost couldn’t believe her eyes. Tumor cells eating tumor cells wasn’t something that she’d learned about in school.

As the NIH-funded team described in the Journal of Cell Biology, these chemotherapy-treated breast cancer cells were not only cannibalizing their neighbors, they were doing it with remarkable frequency [1]. But why?

A possible explanation is that some cancer cells resist chemotherapy by going dormant and not dividing. The new study suggests that while in this dormant state, cannibalism is one way that tumor cells can keep going.

The study also found that these acts of cancer cell cannibalism depend on genetic programs closely resembling those of immune cells called macrophages. These scavenging cells perform their important protective roles by gobbling up invading bacteria, viruses, and other infectious microbes. Drug-resistant breast cancer cells have apparently co-opted similar programs in response to chemotherapy but, in this case, to eat their own neighbors.

Tonnessen-Murray’s team confirmed that cannibalizing cancer cells have a survival advantage. The findings suggest that treatments designed to block the cells’ cannibalistic tendencies might hold promise as a new way to treat otherwise hard-to-treat cancers. That’s a possibility the researchers are now exploring, although they report that stopping the cells from this dramatic survival act remains difficult.

Reference:

[1] Chemotherapy-induced senescent cancer cells engulf other cells to enhance their survival. Tonnessen-Murray CA, Frey WD, Rao SG, Shahbandi A, Ungerleider NA, Olayiwola JO, Murray LB, Vinson BT, Chrisey DB, Lord CJ, Jackson JG. J Cell Biol. 2019 Sep 17.

Links:

Breast Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

James Jackson (Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences


Panel Finds Exercise May Lower Cancer Risk, Improve Outcomes

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Mature woman doing moderate exercise
Credit: gettyimages/vgajic

Exercise can work wonders for your health, including strengthening muscles and bones, and boosting metabolism, mood, and memory skills. Now comes word that staying active may also help to lower your odds of developing cancer. 

After reviewing the scientific evidence, a panel of experts recently concluded that physical activity is associated with reduced risks for seven common types of cancer: colon, breast, kidney, endometrial, bladder, stomach, and esophageal adenocarcinoma. What’s more, the experts found that exercise—both before and after a cancer diagnosis—was linked to improved survival among people with breast, colorectal, or prostate cancers.

About a decade ago, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) convened its first panel of experts to review the evidence on the role of exercise in cancer. At the time, there was limited evidence to suggest a connection between exercise and a reduced risk for breast, colon, and perhaps a few other cancer types. There also were some hints that exercise might help to improve survival among people with a diagnosis of cancer.

Today, the evidence linking exercise and cancer has grown considerably. That’s why the ACSM last year convened a group of 40 experts to perform a comprehensive review of the research literature and summarize the level of the evidence. The team, including Charles Matthews and Frank Perna with the NIH’s National Cancer Institute, reported its findings and associated guidelines and recommendations in three papers just published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise and CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians [1,2,3].

Here are some additional highlights from the papers:

Ÿ There’s moderate evidence to support an association between exercise and reduced risk for some other cancer types, including cancers of the lung and liver.

Ÿ While the optimal amount of exercise needed to reduce cancer risk is still unclear, being physically active is clearly one of the most important steps in general that people of all ages and abilities can take.

Ÿ Is sitting the new smoking? Reducing the amount of time spent sitting also may help to lower the risk of some cancers, including endometrial, colon, and lung cancers. However, there’s not enough evidence to draw clear conclusions yet.

Ÿ Every cancer survivor should, within reason, “avoid inactivity.” There’s plenty of evidence to show that aerobic and resistance exercise training improves many cancer-related health outcomes, reducing anxiety, depression, and fatigue while improving physical functioning and quality of life.

Ÿ Physical activity before and after a diagnosis of cancer also may help to improve survival in some cancers, with perhaps the greatest benefits coming from exercise during and/or after cancer treatment.

Based on the evidence, the panel recommends that cancer survivors engage in moderate-intensity exercise, including aerobic and resistance training, at least two to three times a week. They should exercise for about 30 minutes per session.

The recommendation is based on added confirmation that exercise is generally safe for cancer survivors. The data indicate exercise can lead to improvements in anxiety, depression, fatigue, overall quality of life, and in some cases survival.

The panel also recommends that treatment teams and fitness professionals more systematically incorporate “exercise prescriptions” into cancer care. They should develop the resources to design exercise prescriptions that deliver the right amount of exercise to meet the specific needs, preferences, and abilities of people with cancer.

The ACSM has launched the “Moving Through Cancer” initiative. This initiative will help raise awareness about the importance of exercise during cancer treatment and help support doctors in advising their patients on those benefits.

It’s worth noting that there are still many fascinating questions to explore. While exercise is known to support better health in a variety of ways, correlation is not the same as causation. Questions remain about the underlying mechanisms that may help to explain the observed associations between physical activity, lowered cancer risk, and improved cancer survival.

An intensive NIH research effort, called the Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium (MoTrPAC), is underway to identify molecular mechanisms that might explain the wide-ranging benefits of physical exercise. It might well shed light on cancer, too.

As that evidence continues to come in, the findings are yet another reminder of the importance of exercise to our health. Everybody—people who are healthy, those with cancer, and cancer survivors alike—should make an extra effort to remain as physically active as our ages, abilities, and current health will allow. If I needed any more motivation to keep up my program of vigorous exercise twice a week, guided by an experienced trainer, here it is!

References:

[1] Exercise Is Medicine in Oncology: Engaging Clinicians to Help Patients Move Through Cancer. Schmitz KH, Campbell AM, Stuiver MM, Pinto BM, Schwartz AL, Morris GS, Ligibel JA, Cheville A, Galvão, DA, Alfano CM, Patel AV, Hue T, Gerber LH, Sallis R, Gusani NJ, Stout NL, Chan L, Flowers F, Doyle C, Helmrich S, Bain W, Sokolof J, Winters-Stone KM, Campbell KL, Matthews CE.  CA Cancer J Clin. 2019 Oct 16 [Epub ahead of publication]

[2] American College of Sports Medicine Roundtable Report on Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Cancer Prevention and Control. Patel AV, Friedenreich CM, Moore SC, Hayes SC, Silver JK, Campbell KL, Gerber LH, George SM, Fulton JE, Denlinger C, Morris GS, Hue T, Schmitz KH, Matthews CE. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Oct 16. [Epub ahead of publication]

[3] Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors: Consensus Statement from International Multidisciplinary Roundtable. Campbell KL, Winters-Stone KM, Wiskemann J, May AM, Schwartz AL, Courneya KS, Zucker DS, Matthews CE, Ligibel JA, Gerber LH, Morris GS, Patel AV, Hue TF, Perna FM, Schmitz KH. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Oct 16. [Epub ahead of publication]

Links:

Physical Activity and Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Moving Through Cancer (American College of Sports Medicine, Indianapolis, IN)

American College of Sports Medicine

Charles Matthews (NCI)

Frank Perna (NCI)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute


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