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Zachary Morris

Zachary Morris
Credit: Alan Leon

Zachary Morris has certainly done some memorable things. As a Rhodes Scholar, he once attended an evening reception at Buckingham Palace, played a game of pick-up football with former President Bill Clinton, and traveled to South Africa to take a Robben Island Prison tour, led by the late Nelson Mandela. But something the young radiation oncologist did during his medical residency could prove even more momentous. He received a special opportunity from the American Board of Radiology to join others in studying how to pair radiation therapy with the emerging cancer treatment strategy of immunotherapy.

Morris’s studies in animals showed that the two treatments have a unique synergy, generating a sustained tumor-specific immune response that’s more potent than either therapy alone. But getting this combination therapy just right to optimize its cancer-fighting abilities remains complicated. Morris, now a researcher and clinician at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, has received a 2017 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award to look deeper into this promising approach. He and his collaborators will use what they learn to better inform their future early stage clinical trials of radio-immunotherapy starting with melanoma, head and neck cancers, and neuroblastoma.

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Pediatric Cancer

Credit: National Cancer Institute, NIH

Each year, more than 15,000 American children and teenagers will be diagnosed with cancer. While great progress has been made in treating many types of childhood cancer, it remains the leading cause of disease-related death among kids who make it past infancy in the United States [1]. One reason for that sobering reality is our relatively limited knowledge about the precise biological mechanisms responsible for childhood cancers—information vital for designing targeted therapies to fight the disease in all its varied forms.

Now, two complementary studies have brought into clearer focus the genomic landscapes of many types of childhood cancer [2, 3]. The studies, which analyzed DNA data representing tumor and normal tissue from more than 2,600 young people with cancer, uncovered thousands of genomic alterations in about 200 different genes that appear to drive childhood cancers. These so-called “driver genes” included many that were different than those found in similar studies of adult cancers, as well as a considerable number of mutations that appear amenable to targeting with precision therapies already available or under development.

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KRAS in active and inactive states

Caption: Mutant KRAS protein (white) keeps switch (red/pink) open in active state for GTP (arrow). After treatment with ARS-1620 (blue), switch is trapped in inactive GDP-bound state.
Credit: Adapted from Cell. 2018 Jan 25;172(3):578-589.

Of the more than 1.7 million Americans expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year, nearly one-third will have tumors that contain at least one mutation in the RAS family of genes [1]. That includes 95 percent of pancreatic cancers and 45 percent of colon cancers. These mutations result in the production of defective proteins that can drive cancer’s uncontrolled growth, as well as make cancers resistant to therapies. As you might expect, RAS has emerged as a major potential target for fighting cancer. Unfortunately, it is a target that’s proven very difficult to “hit” despite nearly three decades of work by researchers in both the private and public sectors, leading NIH’s National Cancer Institute to begin The RAS Initiative in 2013. This important effort has made advances with RAS that have translational potential.

Recently, I was excited to hear of progress in targeting a specific mutant form of KRAS, which is a protein encoded by a RAS gene involved in many lung cancers and some pancreatic and colorectal cancers. The new study, carried out by a pharmaceutical research team in mouse models of human cancer, is the first to show that it is possible to shrink a tumor in a living creature by directly inhibiting mutant KRAS protein [2].

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Liquid Biopsy Schematic

Caption: Liquid biopsy. Tumor cells shed protein and DNA into bloodstream for laboratory analysis and early cancer detection.

Early detection usually offers the best chance to beat cancer. Unfortunately, many tumors aren’t caught until they’ve grown relatively large and spread to other parts of the body. That’s why researchers have worked so tirelessly to develop new and more effective ways of screening for cancer as early as possible. One innovative approach, called “liquid biopsy,” screens for specific molecules that tumors release into the bloodstream.

Recently, an NIH-funded research team reported some encouraging results using a “universal” liquid biopsy called CancerSEEK [1]. By analyzing samples of a person’s blood for eight proteins and segments of 16 genes, CancerSEEK was able to detect most cases of eight different kinds of cancer, including some highly lethal forms—such as pancreatic, ovarian, and liver—that currently lack screening tests.

In a study of 1,005 people known to have one of eight early-stage tumor types, CancerSEEK detected the cancer in blood about 70 percent of the time, which is among the best performances to date for a blood test. Importantly, when CancerSEEK was performed on 812 healthy people without cancer, the test rarely delivered a false-positive result. The test can also be run relatively cheaply, at an estimated cost of less than $500.

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I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year! Hope your 2018 is off to a great start.

Over the holidays, the journal Science published its annual, end-of-the-year list of research breakthroughs, from anthropology to zoology. I always look forward to seeing the list and reflecting on some of the stunning advances reported in the past 12 months. Last year was no exception. Science’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year, as chosen by its editors, was in the field of astrophysics. Scientists were able to witness the effects of the collision of two neutron stars—large stars with collapsed inner cores—smacking into each other 130 million light years away. How cool is that!

Numbered prominently among the nine other breakthroughs were five from biomedicine: gene therapy, gene editing, cancer immunotherapy, cryo-EM, and biology preprints. All involved varying degrees of NIH support, and all drew great interest from readers. In fact, three of the top four vote-getters in the “People’s Choice” category came from biomedicine. That includes the People’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year: gene therapy success. And so, in what has become a Director’s Blog tradition, I’ll kick off our new year of posts by taking a closer look at these biomedical breakthroughs—starting with the little girl in the collage above, and moving clockwise around the images:

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