Persistence Pays Off: Recognizing Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, the 2023 Nobel Prize Winners in Physiology or Medicine
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Last week, biochemist Katalin Karikó and immunologist Drew Weissman earned the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries that enabled the development of effective messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines against COVID-19. On behalf of the NIH community, I’d like to congratulate Karikó and Weissman and thank them for their persistence in pursuing their investigations. NIH is proud to have supported their seminal research, cited by the Nobel Assembly as key publications.1,2,3
While the lifesaving benefits of mRNA vaccines are now clearly realized, Karikó and Weissman’s breakthrough finding in 2005 was not fully appreciated at the time as to why it would be significant. However, their dogged dedication to gaining a better understanding of how RNA interacts with the immune system underscores the often-underappreciated importance of incremental research. Following where the science leads through step-by-step investigations often doesn’t appear to be flashy, but it can end up leading to major advances.
To best describe Karikó and Weissman’s discovery, I’ll first do a quick review of vaccine history. As many of you know, vaccines stimulate our immune systems to protect us from getting infected or from getting very sick from a specific pathogen. Since the late 1700s, scientists have used various approaches to design effective vaccines. Some vaccines introduce a weakened or noninfectious version of a virus to the body, while others present only a small part of the virus, like a protein. The immune system detects the weak or partial virus and develops specialized defenses against it. These defenses work to protect us if we are ever exposed to the real virus.
In the early 1990s, scientists began exploring a different approach to vaccines that involved delivering genetic material, or instructions, so the body’s own cells could make the virus proteins that stimulate an immune response.4,5 Because this approach eliminates the step of growing virus or virus protein in the laboratory—which can be difficult to do in very large quantities and can require a lot of time and money—it had potential, in theory, to be a faster and cheaper way to manufacture vaccines.
Scientists were exploring two types of vaccines as part of this new approach: DNA vaccines and messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. DNA vaccines deliver an encoded protein recipe that the cell first copies or transcribes before it starts making protein. For mRNA vaccines, the transcription process is done in the laboratory, and the vaccine delivers the “readable” instructions to the cell for making protein. However, mRNA was not immediately a practical vaccine approach due to several scientific hurdles, including that it caused inflammatory reactions that could be unhealthy for people.
Unfazed by the challenges, Karikó and Weissman spent years pursuing research on RNA and the immune system. They had a brilliant idea that they turned into a significant discovery in 2005 when they proved that inserting subtle chemical modifications to lab-transcribed mRNA eliminated the unwanted inflammatory response.1 In later studies, the pair showed that these chemical modifications also increased protein production.2,3 Both discoveries would be critical to advancing the use of mRNA-based vaccines and therapies.
Earlier theories that mRNA could enable rapid vaccine development turned out to be true. By March 2020, the first clinical trial of an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 had begun enrolling volunteers, and by December 2020, health care workers were receiving their first shots. This unprecedented timeline was only possible because of Karikó and Weissman’s decades of work, combined with the tireless efforts of many academic, industry and government scientists, including several from the NIH intramural program. Now, researchers are exploring how mRNA could be used in vaccines for other infectious diseases and in cancer vaccines.
As an investigator myself, I’m fascinated by how science continues to build on itself—a process that is done out of the public eye. Luckily every year, the Nobel Prize briefly illuminates for the larger public this long arc of scientific discovery. The Nobel Assembly’s recognition of Karikó and Weissman is a tribute to all scientists who do the painstaking work of trying to understand how things work. Many of the tools we have today to better prevent and treat diseases would not have been possible without the brilliance, tenacity and grit of researchers like Karikó and Weissman.
- K Karikó, et al. Suppression of RNA Recognition by Toll-like Receptors: The impact of nucleoside modification and the evolutionary origin of RNA. Immunity DOI: 10.1016/j.immuni.2005.06.008 (2005).
- K Karikó, et al. Incorporation of pseudouridine into mRNA yields superior nonimmunogenic vector with increased translational capacity and biological stability. Molecular Therapy DOI: 10.1038/mt.2008.200 (2008).
- BR Anderson, et al. Incorporation of pseudouridine into mRNA enhances translation by diminishing PKR activation. Nucleic Acids Research DOI: 10.1093/nar/gkq347 (2010).
- DC Tang, et al. Genetic immunization is a simple method for eliciting an immune response. Nature DOI: 10.1038/356152a0 (1992).
- F Martinon, et al. Induction of virus-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes in vivo by liposome-entrapped mRNA. European Journal of Immunology DOI: 10.1002/eji.1830230749 (1993).
Katalin Karikó: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Drew Weissman: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Scientists have made remarkable progress in understanding the underlying changes that make cancer grow and have applied this knowledge to develop and guide targeted treatment approaches to vastly improve outcomes for people with many cancer types. And yet treatment progress for people with brain tumors known as gliomas—including the most aggressive glioblastomas—has remained slow. One reason is that doctors lack tests that reliably predict which among many therapeutic options will work best for a given tumor.
Now an NIH-funded team has developed a miniature device with the potential to change this for the approximately 25,000 people diagnosed with brain cancers in the U.S. each year . When implanted into cancerous brain tissue during surgery, the rice-sized drug-releasing device can simultaneously conduct experiments to measure a tumor’s response to more than a dozen drugs or drug combinations. What’s more, a small clinical trial reported in Science Translational Medicine offers the first evidence in people with gliomas that these devices can safely offer unprecedented insight into tumor-specific drug responses .
These latest findings come from a Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, team led by Pierpaolo Peruzzi and Oliver Jonas. They recognized that drug-screening studies conducted in cells or tissue samples in the lab too often failed to match what happens in people with gliomas undergoing cancer treatment. Wide variation within individual brain tumors also makes it hard to predict a tumor’s likely response to various treatment options.
It led them to an intriguing idea: Why not test various therapeutic options in each patient’s tumor? To do it, they developed a device, about six millimeters long, that can be inserted into a brain tumor during surgery to deliver tiny doses of up to 20 drugs. Doctors can then remove and examine the drug-exposed cancerous tissue in the laboratory to determine each treatment’s effects. The data can then be used to guide subsequent treatment decisions, according to the researchers.
In the current study, the researchers tested their device on six study volunteers undergoing brain surgery to remove a glioma tumor. For each volunteer, the device was implanted into the tumor and remained in place for about two to three hours while surgeons worked to remove most of the tumor. Next, the device was taken out along with the last piece of a tumor at the end of the surgery for further study of drug responses.
Importantly, none of the study participants experienced any adverse effects from the device. Using the devices, the researchers collected valuable data, including how a tumor’s response changed with varying drug concentrations or how each treatment led to molecular changes in the cancerous cells.
More research is needed to better understand how use of such a device might change treatment and patient outcomes in the longer term. The researchers note that it would take more than a couple of hours to determine how treatments produce less immediate changes, such as immune responses. As such, they’re now conducting a follow-up trial to test a possible two-stage procedure, in which their device is inserted first using minimally invasive surgery 72 hours prior to a planned surgery, allowing longer exposure of tumor tissue to drugs prior to a tumor’s surgical removal.
Many questions remain as they continue to optimize this approach. However, it’s clear that such a device gives new meaning to personalized cancer treatment, with great potential to improve outcomes for people living with hard-to-treat gliomas.
 National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program. Cancer Stat Facts: Brain and Other Nervous System Cancer.
 Peruzzi P et al. Intratumoral drug-releasing microdevices allow in situ high-throughput pharmaco phenotyping in patients with gliomas. Science Translational Medicine DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.adi0069 (2023).
Brain Tumors – Patient Version (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Pierpaolo Peruzzi (Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA)
Jonas Lab (Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA)
NIH Support: National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
It’s always best to diagnose cancer at an early stage when treatment is most likely to succeed. Unfortunately, far too many cancers are still detected only after cancer cells have escaped from a primary tumor and spread to distant parts of the body. This explains why there’s been so much effort in recent years to develop liquid biopsies, which are tests that can pick up on circulating cancer cells or molecular signs of cancer in blood or other bodily fluids and reliably trace them back to the organ in which a potentially life-threatening tumor is growing.
Earlier methods to develop liquid biopsies for detecting cancers often have relied on the presence of cancer-related proteins and/or DNA in the bloodstream. Now, an NIH-supported research team has encouraging evidence to suggest that this general approach to detecting cancers—including aggressive pancreatic cancers—may work even better by taking advantage of signals from a lesser-known form of genetic material called noncoding RNA.
The findings reported in Nature Biomedical Engineering suggest that the new liquid biopsy approach may aid in the diagnosis of many forms of cancer . The studies show that the sensitivity of the tests varies—a highly sensitive test is one that rarely misses cases of disease. However, they already have evidence that millions of circulating RNA molecules may hold promise for detecting cancers of the liver, esophagus, colon, stomach, and lung.
How does it work? The human genome contains about 3 billion paired DNA letters. Most of those letters are transcribed, or copied, into single-stranded RNA molecules. While RNA is best known for encoding proteins that do the work of the cell, most RNA never gets translated into proteins at all. This noncoding RNA includes repetitive RNA that can be transcribed from millions of repeat elements—patterns of the same few DNA letters occurring multiple times in the genome.
Common approaches to studying RNA don’t analyze repetitive RNA, so its usefulness as a diagnostic tool has been unclear—until recently. Last year, the lab of Daniel Kim at the University of California, Santa Cruz reported  that a key genetic mutation that occurs early on in some cancers causes repetitive RNA molecules to be secreted in large quantities from cancer cells, even at the earliest stages of cancer. Non-cancerous cells, by comparison, release much less repetitive RNA.
The findings suggested that liquid biopsy tests that look for this repetitive, noncoding RNA might offer a powerful new way to detect cancers sooner, according to the authors. But first they needed a method capable of measuring it. Due to its oftentimes uncertain functions, the researchers have referred to repetitive, noncoding RNA as “dark matter.”
Using a liquid biopsy platform they developed called COMPLETE-seq, Kim’s team trained computers to detect cancers by looking for patterns in RNA data. The platform enables sequencing and analysis of all protein coding and noncoding RNAs—including any RNA from more than 5 million repeat elements—present in a blood sample. They found that their classifiers worked better when repetitive RNAs were included. The findings lend support to the idea that repetitive, noncoding RNA in the bloodstream is a rich source of information for detecting cancers, which has previously been overlooked.
In a study comparing blood samples from healthy people to those with pancreatic cancer, the COMPLETE-seq technology showed that nearly all people in the study with pancreatic cancer had more repetitive, noncoding RNA in their blood samples compared to healthy people, according to the researchers. They used the COMPLETE-seq test on blood samples from people with other types of cancer as well. For example, their test accurately detected 91% of colorectal cancer samples and 93% of lung cancer samples.
They now plan to look at many more cancer types with samples from additional patients representing a broad range of cancer stages. The goal is to develop a single RNA liquid biopsy test that could detect multiple forms of cancer with a high degree of accuracy and specificity. They note that such a test might also be used to guide treatment decisions and more readily detect a cancer’s recurrence. The hope is that one day a comprehensive liquid biopsy test including coding and noncoding RNA will catch many more cancers sooner, when treatment can be most successful.
 RE Reggiardo et al. Profiling of repetitive RNA sequences in the blood plasma of patients with cancer. Nature Biomedical Engineering DOI: 10.1038/s41551-023-01081-7 (2023).
 RE Reggiardo et al. Mutant KRAS regulates transposable element RNA and innate immunity via KRAB zinc-finger genes. Cell Reports DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2022.111104 (2022).
NIH Support: National Cancer Institute, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Over the years, cancer researchers have uncovered many of the tricks that tumors use to fuel their growth and evade detection by the body’s immune system. More tricks await discovery, and finding them will be key in learning to target the right treatments to the right cancers.
Recently, a team of researchers demonstrated in lab studies a surprising trick pulled off by cells from a common form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. The researchers found that glioblastoma cells steal mitochondria, the power plants of our cells, from other cells in the central nervous system .
Why would cancer cells do this? How do they pull it off? The researchers don’t have all the answers yet. But glioblastoma arises from abnormal astrocytes, a particular type of the glial cell, a common cell in the brain and spinal cord. It seems from their initial work that stealing mitochondria from neighboring normal cells help these transformed glioblastoma cells to ramp up their growth. This trick might also help to explain why glioblastoma is one of the most aggressive forms of primary brain cancer, with limited treatment options.
In the new study, published in the journal Nature Cancer, a team co-led by Justin Lathia, Lerner Research Institute, Cleveland Clinic, OH, and Hrvoje Miletic, University of Bergen, Norway, had noticed some earlier studies suggesting that glioblastoma cells might steal mitochondria. They wanted to take a closer look.
This very notion highlights an emerging and much more dynamic view of mitochondria. Scientists used to think that mitochondria—which can number in the thousands within a single cell—generally just stayed put. But recent research has established that mitochondria can move around within a cell. They sometimes also get passed from one cell to another.
It also turns out that the intercellular movement of mitochondria has many implications for health. For instance, the transfer of mitochondria helps to rescue damaged tissues in the central nervous system, heart, and respiratory system. But, in other circumstances, this process may possibly come to the rescue of cancer cells.
While Lathia, Miletic, and team knew that mitochondrial transfer was possible, they didn’t know how relevant or dangerous it might be in brain cancers. To find out, they studied mice implanted with glioblastoma tumors from other mice or people with glioblastoma. This mouse model also had been modified to allow the researchers to trace the movement of mitochondria.
Their studies show that healthy cells often transfer some of their mitochondria to glioblastoma cells. They also determined that those mitochondria often came from healthy astrocytes, a process that had been seen before in the recovery from a stroke.
But the transfer process isn’t easy. It requires that a cell expend a lot of energy to form actin filaments that contract to pull the mitochondria along. They also found that the process depends on growth-associated protein 43 (GAP43), suggesting that future treatments aimed at this protein might help to thwart the process.
Their studies also show that, after acquiring extra mitochondria, glioblastoma cells shift into higher gear. The cancerous cells begin burning more energy as their metabolic pathways show increased activity. These changes allow for more rapid and aggressive growth. Overall, the findings show that this interaction between healthy and cancerous cells may partly explain why glioblastomas are so often hard to beat.
While more study is needed to confirm the role of this process in people with glioblastoma, the findings are an important reminder that treatment advances in oncology may come not only from study of the cancer itself but also by carefully considering the larger context and environments in which tumors grow. The hope is that these intriguing new findings will one day lead to new treatment options for the approximately 13,000 people in the U.S. alone who are diagnosed with glioblastoma each year .
 GAP43-dependent mitochondria transfer from astrocytes enhances glioblastoma tumorigenicity. Watson DC, Bayik D, Storevik S, Moreino SS, Hjelmeland AB, Hossain JA, Miletic H, Lathia JD et al. Nat Cancer. 2023 May 11. [Published online ahead of print.]
 CBTRUS statistical report: Primary brain and other central nervous system tumors diagnosed in the United States in 2011-2015. Ostrom QT, Gittleman H, Truitt G, Boscia A, Kruchko C, Barnholtz-Sloan JS. 2018 Oct 1, Neuro Oncol., p. 20(suppl_4):iv1-iv86.
Glioblastoma (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)
Brain Tumors (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Justin Lathia Lab (Cleveland Clinic, OH)
Hrvoje Miletic (University of Bergen, Norway)
NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Chances are good that you’ve had an Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection, usually during childhood. More than 90 percent of us have, though we often don’t know it. That’s because most EBV infections are mild or produce no symptoms at all.
But in some people, EBV can lead to other health problems. The virus can cause infectious mononucleosis (“mono”), type 1 diabetes, and other ailments. It also can persist in our bodies for years and cause increased risk later in life for certain cancers, such as lymphoma, leukemia, and head and neck cancer. Now, an NIH-funded team has some of the best evidence yet to explain how this EBV that hangs around may lead to cancer .
The paper, published recently in the journal Nature, shows that a key viral protein readily binds to a particular spot on a particular human chromosome. Where the protein accumulates, the chromosome becomes more prone to breaking for reasons that aren’t yet fully known. What the study makes clearer is that the breakage produces latently infected cells that are more likely over time to become cancerous.
This discovery paves the way potentially for ways to screen for and identify those at particular risk for developing EBV-associated cancers. It may also fuel the development of promising new ways to prevent these cancers from arising in the first place.
The work comes from a team led by Don Cleveland and Julia Su Zhou Li, University of California San Diego’s Ludwig Cancer Research, La Jolla, CA. Over the years, it’s been established that EBV, a type of herpes virus, often is detected in certain cancers, particularly in people with a long-term latent infection. What interested the team is a viral protein, called EBNA1, which routinely turns up in those same EBV-related cancers.
The EBNA1 protein is especially interesting because it binds viral DNA in particular spots, which allows the virus to persist and make more copies of itself. This discovery raised the intriguing possibility that the protein may also bind similar sequences in human DNA. While it had been suggested previously that this interaction might play a role in EBV-associated cancers, the details had remained murky—until now.
In the new study, the researchers first made uninfected human cells produce the viral EBNA1 protein. They then peered inside them with a microscope to see where those proteins went. In both healthy and cancerous human cells, they watched as EBNA1 proteins built up at two distinct spots and confirmed that this accumulation was dependent on the protein’s ability to bind DNA.
Next, they mapped where exactly EBNA1 binds to human DNA. Interestingly, it was along a repetitive non-protein-coding stretch of DNA on human chromosome 11. This region includes more than 300 copies of an 18-letter sequence that looks quite similar to the EBNA1-binding sites in its own viral genome.
What’s more, the researchers noticed that the repetitive DNA there takes on a structure that’s known for being unstable. And these so-called fragile sites are inherently prone to breaking.
The team went on to uncover evidence that the buildup of EBNA1 at this already fragile site only makes matters worse. In EBV-infected cells, increasing the amount of EBNA1 protein led to more chromosome 11 breaks. Those breaks showed up within a single day in about 40 percent of cells.
For these cells, those breaks also may be a double whammy. That’s because the breaks are located next to neighboring genes with long recognized roles in regulating cell growth. When altered, these genes can contribute to turning a cell cancerous.
To further nail down the link to cancer, the researchers looked to whole-genome sequencing data for more than 2,400 cancers including 38 tumor types from the international Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes consortium . They found that tumors with detectable EBV also had an unusually high number of chromosome 11 abnormalities. In fact, that was true in every single case of head and neck cancer.
The findings suggest that people will vary in their susceptibility to EBNA1-induced DNA breaks along chromosome 11 based on the amount of EBNA1 protein in their latently infected cells. It also will depend on the number of EBV-like DNA repeats present in their DNA.
Given these new findings, it’s worth noting that the presence of EBV and the very same viral protein has been implicated also in the link between EBV and multiple sclerosis (MS) . Together, these recent findings are a reminder of the value in pursuing an EBV vaccine that might thwart this infection and its associated conditions, including certain cancers and MS. And, we’re getting there. In fact, an early-stage clinical trial for an experimental EBV vaccine is now ongoing here at the NIH Clinical Center.
 Chromosomal fragile site breakage by EBV-encoded EBNA1 at clustered repeats. Li JSZ, Abbasi A, Kim DH, Lippman SM, Alexandrov LB, Cleveland DW. Nature. 2023 Apr 12.
 Pan-cancer analysis of whole genomes. ICGC/TCGA Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes Consortium. Nature.2020 Feb;578(7793):82-93.
 Clonally expanded B cells in multiple sclerosis bind EBV EBNA1 and GlialCAM. Lanz TV, Brewer RC, Steinman L, Robinson WH, et al. Nature. 2022 Mar;603(7900):321-327.
About Epstein-Barr Virus (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)
Head and Neck Cancer (National Cancer Institute,/NIH)
Multiple Sclerosis (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)
Don W. Cleveland Lab (University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA)
NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; National Cancer Institute
Posted on by Douglas M. Sheeley, Sc.D., NIH Common Fund
With just a blood sample from a patient, a promising technology has the potential to accurately diagnose non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), the most-common form of the disease, more than 90 percent of the time. The same technology can even predict from the same blood sample whether a patient will respond well to a targeted immunotherapy treatment.
This work is a good example of research supported by the NIH Common Fund. Many Common Fund programs support development of new tools that catalyze research across the full spectrum of biomedical science without focusing on a single disease or organ system.
The emerging NSCLC prediction technology was developed as part of our Extracellular RNA Communication Program. The program develops technologies to understand RNA circulating in the body, known as extracellular RNA (exRNA). These molecules can be easily accessed in bodily fluids such as blood, urine, and saliva, and they have enormous potential as biomarkers to better understand cancer and other diseases.
When the body’s immune system detects a developing tumor, it activates various immune cells that work together to kill the suspicious cells. But many tumors have found a way to evade the immune system by producing a protein called PD-L1.
Displayed on the surface of a cancer cell, PD-L1 can bind to a protein found on immune cells with the similar designation of PD-1. The binding of the two proteins keeps immune cells from killing tumor cells. One type of immunotherapy interferes with this binding process and can restore the natural ability of the immune system to kill the tumor cells.
However, tumors differ from person to person, and this form of cancer immunotherapy doesn’t work for everyone. People with higher levels of PD-L1 in their tumors generally have better response rates to immunotherapy, and that’s why oncologists test for the protein before attempting the treatment.
Because cancer cells within a tumor can vary greatly, a single biopsy taken at a single site in the tumor may miss cells with PD-L1. In fact, current prediction technologies using tissue biopsies correctly predict just 20 – 40 percent of NSCLC patients who will respond well to immunotherapy. This means some people receive immunotherapy who shouldn’t, while others don’t get it who might benefit.
To improve these predictions, a research team led by Eduardo Reátegui, The Ohio State University, Columbus, engineered a new technology to measure exRNA and proteins found within and on the surface of extracellular vesicles (EVs) . EVs are tiny molecular containers released by cells. They carry RNA and proteins (including PD-L1) throughout the body and are known to play a role in communication between cells.
As the illustration above shows, EVs can be shed from tumors and then circulate in the bloodstream. That means their characteristics and internal cargo, including exRNA, can provide insight into the features of a tumor. But collecting EVs, breaking them open, and pooling their contents for assessment means that molecules occurring in small quantities (like PD-L1) can get lost in the mix. It also exposes delicate exRNA molecules to potential breakdown outside the protective EV.
The new technology solves these problems. It sorts and isolates individual EVs and measures both PD-1 and PD-L1 proteins, as well as exRNA that contains their genetic codes. This provides a more comprehensive picture of PD-L1 production within the tumor compared to a single biopsy sample. But also, measuring surface proteins and the contents of individual EVs makes this technique exquisitely sensitive.
By measuring proteins and the exRNA cargo from individual EVs, Reátegui and team found that the technology correctly predicted whether a patient had NSCLC 93.2 percent of the time. It also predicted immunotherapy response with an accuracy of 72.2 percent, far exceeding the current gold standard method.
The researchers are working on scaling up the technology, which would increase precision and allow for more simultaneous measurements. They are also working with the James Comprehensive Cancer Center at The Ohio State University to expand their testing. That includes validating the technology using banked clinical samples of blood and other bodily fluids from large groups of cancer patients. With continued development, this new technology could improve NSCLC treatment while, critically, lowering its cost.
The real power of the technology, though, lies in its flexibility. Its components can be swapped out to recognize any number of marker molecules for other diseases and conditions. That includes other cancers, neurodegenerative diseases, traumatic brain injury, viral diseases, and cardiovascular diseases. This broad applicability is an example of how Common Fund investments catalyze advances across the research spectrum that will help many people now and in the future.
 An immunogold single extracellular vesicular RNA and protein (AuSERP) biochip to predict responses to immunotherapy in non-small cell lung cancer patients. Nguyen LTH, Zhang J, Rima XY, Wang X, Kwak KJ, Okimoto T, Amann J, Yoon MJ, Shukuya T, Chiang CL, Walters N, Ma Y, Belcher D, Li H, Palmer AF, Carbone DP, Lee LJ, Reátegui E. J Extracell Vesicles. 11(9):e12258. doi: 10.1002/jev2.12258.
Video: Unlocking the Mysteries of Extracellular RNA Communication (Common Fund)
Extracellular RNA Communication Program (ERCC) (Common Fund)
Upcoming Meeting: ERCC19 Research Meeting (May 1-2, 2023)
Eduardo Reátegui Group for Bioengineering Research (The Ohio State University College of Engineering, Columbus)
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes, Centers, and Offices to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 27th in the series of NIH guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
The human brain is profoundly complex, consisting of tens of billions of neurons that form trillions of interconnections. This complex neural wiring that allows us to think, feel, move, and act is surrounded by what’s called the blood-brain barrier (BBB), a dense sheet of cells and blood vessels. The BBB blocks dangerous toxins and infectious agents from entering the brain, while allowing nutrients and other essential small molecules to pass right through.
This gatekeeping function helps to keep the brain healthy, but not when the barrier prevents potentially life-saving drugs from reaching aggressive, inoperable brain tumors. Now, an NIH-funded team reporting in the journal Nature Materials describes a promising new way to ferry cancer drugs across the BBB and reach the sites of disease . While the researchers have not yet tried this new approach in people, they have some encouraging evidence from studies in mouse models of medulloblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer that’s diagnosed in hundreds of children each year.
The team, including Daniel Heller, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY, and Praveen Raju, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY, wanted to target a protein called P-selectin. The protein is found on blood vessel cells at sites of infection, injury, or inflammation, including cancers. The immune system uses such proteins to direct immune cells to the places where they are needed, allowing them to exit the bloodstream and enter other tissues.
Heller’s team thought they could take advantage of P-selectin and its molecular homing properties as a potential way to deliver cancer drugs to patients. But first they needed to package the drugs in particles tiny enough to stick to P-selectin like an immune cell.
That’s when they turned to a drug-delivery construct called a nanoparticle, which can have diameters a thousand times smaller than that of a human hair. But what’s pretty unique here is the nanoparticles are made from chains of sugar molecules called fucoidan, which are readily extracted from a type of brown seaweed that grows in Japan. It turns out that this unlikely ingredient has a special ability to attract P-selectin.
In the new study, the researchers decided to put their novel fucoidan nanoparticles to the test in the brain, while building on their previous animal work in the lungs . That work showed that when fucoidan nanoparticles bind to P-selectin, they trigger a process that shuttles them across blood vessel walls.
This natural mechanism should also allow nanoparticle-packaged substances in the bloodstream to pass through vessel walls in the BBB and into the surrounding brain tissue. The hope was it would do so without damaging the BBB, a critical step for improving the treatment of brain tumors.
In studies with mouse models of medulloblastoma, the team loaded the nanoparticles with a cancer drug called vismodegib. This drug is approved for certain skin cancers and has been tested for medulloblastoma. The trouble is that the drug on its own comes with significant side effects in children at doses needed to effectively treat this brain cancer.
The researchers found that the vismodegib-loaded nanoparticles circulating in the mice could indeed pass through the intact BBB and into the brain. They further found that the particles accumulated at the site of the medulloblastoma tumors, where P-selectin was most abundant, and not in other healthy parts of the brain. In the mice, the approach allowed the vismodegib treatment to work better against the cancer and at lower doses with fewer side effects.
This raised another possibility. Radiation is a standard therapy for children and adults with brain tumors. The researcher found that radiation boosts P-selectin levels specifically in tumors. The finding suggests that radiation targeting specific parts of the brain prior to nanoparticle treatment could make it even more effective. It also may help to further limit the amount of cancer-fighting drug that reaches healthy brain cells and other parts of the body.
The fucoidan nanoparticles could, in theory, deliver many different drugs to the brain. The researchers note their promise for treating brain tumors of all types, including those that spread to the brain from other parts of the body. While much more work is needed, these seaweed-based nanoparticles may also help in delivering drugs to a wide range of other brain conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, stroke, and focal epilepsy, in which seizures arise from a specific part of the brain. It’s a discovery that brings new meaning to the familiar adage that good things come in small packages.
 P-selectin-targeted nanocarriers induce active crossing of the blood-brain barrier via caveolin-1-dependent transcytosis. Tylawsky DE, Kiguchi H, Vaynshteyn J, Gerwin J, Shah J, Islam T, Boyer JA, Boué DR, Snuderl M, Greenblatt MB, Shamay Y, Raju GP, Heller DA. Nat Mater. 2023 Mar;22(3):391-399.
 P-selectin is a nanotherapeutic delivery target in the tumor microenvironment. Shamay Y, Elkabets M, Li H, Shah J, Brook S, Wang F, Adler K, Baut E, Scaltriti M, Jena PV, Gardner EE, Poirier JT, Rudin CM, Baselga J, Haimovitz-Friedman A, Heller DA. Sci Transl Med. 2016 Jun 29;8(345):345ra87.
Medulloblastoma Diagnosis and Treatment (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Brain Basics: Know Your Brain (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)
The Daniel Heller Lab (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY)
Praveen Raju (Mount Sinai, New York, NY)
NIH Support: National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
This year, too many Americans will go to the doctor for tissue biopsies to find out if they have cancer. Highly trained pathologists will examine the biopsies under a microscope for unusual cells that show the telltale physical features of a suspected cancer. As informative as the pathology will be for considering the road ahead, it would be even more helpful if pathologists had the tools to look widely inside cells for the actual molecules giving rise to the tumor.
Working this “molecular information” into the pathology report would bring greater diagnostic precision, drilling down to the actual biology driving the growth of the tumor. It also would help doctors to match the right treatments to a patient’s tumor and not waste time on drugs that will be ineffective.
That’s why researchers have been busy building the needed tools and also mapping out molecular atlases of common cancers. These atlases, really a series of 3D spatial maps detailing various biological features within the tumor, keep getting better all the time. That includes the comprehensive atlas of colorectal cancer just published in the journal Cell .
This colorectal atlas comes from an NIH-supported team led by Sandro Santagata, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, and Peter Sorger, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, MA, in collaboration with investigators at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN. The colorectal atlas joins their previously published high-definition map of melanoma , and both are part of the Human Tumor Atlas Network that’s supported by NIH’s National Cancer Institute.
What’s so interesting with the colorectal atlas is the team combined traditional pathology with a sophisticated technique for imaging single cells, enabling them to capture their fine molecular details in an unprecedented way.
They did it using a cutting-edge technique known as cyclic immunofluorescence, or CyCIF. In CyCIF, researchers use many rounds of highly detailed molecular imaging on each tissue sample to generate a rich collection of molecular-level data, cell by cell. Altogether, the researchers captured this fine-scale visual information for nearly 100 million cancer cells isolated from tumor samples representing 93 individuals diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
With this single-cell information in hand, they next created detailed 2D maps covering the length and breadth of large portions of the colorectal cancers under study. Finally, with the aid of first author Jia-Ren Lin, also at Harvard Medical School, and colleagues they stitched together their 2D maps to produce detailed 3D reconstructions showing the length, breadth, and height of the tumors.
This more detailed view of colorectal cancer has allowed the team to explore differences between normal and tumor tissues, as well as variations within an individual tumor. In fact, they’ve uncovered physical features that had never been discovered.
For instance, an individual tumor has regions populated with malignant cells, while other areas look less affected by the cancer. In between are transitional areas that correspond to molecular gradients of information. With this high-resolution map as their guide, researchers can now study what this all might mean for the diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of colorectal cancer.
The atlas also shows that the presence of immune cells varies dramatically within a single tumor. That’s an important discovery because of its potential implications for immunotherapies, in which treatments aim to unleash the immune system in the fight against cancer.
The maps also provide new insights into tumor structure. For example, scientists had previously identified what they thought were 2D pools of a mucus-like substance called mucin with clusters of cancer cells suspended inside. However, the new 3D reconstruction make clear that these aren’t simple mucin pools. Rather, they are cross sections of larger intricate caverns of mucin interconnected by channels, into which cancer cells make finger-like projections.
The good news is the researchers already are helping to bring these methods into the cancer clinic. They also hope to train other scientists to build their own cancer atlases and grow the collection even more.
In the meantime, the team will refine its 3D tumor reconstructions by integrating new imaging technologies and even more data into their maps. It also will map many more colorectal cancer samples to capture the diversity of their basic biology. Also of note, having created atlases for melanoma and colorectal cancer, the team has plans to tackle breast and brain cancers next.
Let me close by saying, if you’re between the ages of 45 and 75, don’t forget to stay up to date on your colorectal cancer screenings. These tests are very good, and they could save your life.
 Multiplexed 3D atlas of state transitions and immune interaction in colorectal cancer. Lin JR, Wang S, Coy S, Chen YA, Yapp C, Tyler M, Nariya MK, Heiser CN, Lau KS, Santagata S, Sorger PK. Cell. 2023 Jan 19;186(2):363-381.e19.
 The spatial landscape of progression and immunoediting in primary melanoma at single-cell resolution. Nirmal AJ, Maliga Z, Vallius T, Quattrochi B, Chen AA, Jacobson CA, Pelletier RJ, Yapp C, Arias-Camison R, Chen YA, Lian CG, Murphy GF, Santagata S, Sorger PK. Cancer Discov. 2022 Jun 2;12(6):1518-1541.
Colorectal Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
CyCIF-Cyclic Immunofluorescence (Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, MA)
Sandro Santagata (Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston)
Peter Sorger (Harvard Medical School)
Jia-Ren Lin (Harvard Medical School)
NIH Support: National Cancer Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Wearable electronic sensors hold tremendous promise for improving human health and wellness. That promise already runs the gamut from real-time monitoring of blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms to measuring alcohol consumption and even administering vaccines.
Now a new study published in the journal Science Advances  demonstrates the promise of wearables also extends to the laboratory. A team of engineers has developed a flexible, adhesive strip that, at first glance, looks like a Band-Aid. But this “bandage” actually contains an ultra-sensitive, battery-operated sensor that’s activated when placed on the skin of mouse models used to study possible new cancer drugs.
This sensor is so sensitive that it can detect, in real time, changes in the size of a tumor down to one-hundredth of a millimeter. That’s about the thickness of the plastic cling wrap you likely have in your kitchen! The device beams those measures to a smartphone app, capturing changes in tumor growth minute by minute over time.
The goal is to determine much sooner—and with greater automation and precision—which potential drug candidates undergoing early testing in the lab best inhibit tumor growth and, consequently, should be studied further. In their studies in mouse models of cancer, researchers found the new sensor could detect differences between tumors treated with an active drug and those treated with a placebo within five hours. Those quick results also were validated using more traditional methods to confirm their accuracy.
The device is the work of a team led by Alex Abramson, a former post-doc with Zhenan Bao, Stanford University’s School of Engineering, Palo Alto, CA. Abramson has since launched his own lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta.
The Stanford team began looking for a technological solution after realizing the early testing of potential cancer drugs typically requires researchers to make tricky measurements using pincer-like calipers by hand. Not only is the process tedious and slow, it’s less than an ideal way to capture changes in soft tissues with the desired precision. The imprecision can also lead to false leads that won’t pan out further along in the drug development pipeline, at great time and expense to their developers.
To refine the process, the NIH-supported team turned to wearable technology and recent advances in flexible electronic materials. They developed a device dubbed FAST (short for Flexible Autonomous Sensor measuring Tumors). Its sensor, embedded in a skin patch, is composed of a flexible and stretchable, skin-like polymer with embedded gold circuitry.
Here’s how FAST works: Coated on top of the polymer skin patch is a layer of gold. When stretched, it forms small cracks that change the material’s electrical conductivity. As the material stretches, even slightly, the number of cracks increases, causing the electronic resistance in the sensor to increase as well. As the material contracts, any cracks come back together, and conductivity improves.
By picking up on those changes in conductivity, the device measures precisely the strain on the polymer membrane—an indication of whether the tumor underneath is stable, growing, or shrinking—and transmits that data to a smartphone. Based on that information, potential therapies that are linked to rapid tumor shrinkage can be fast-tracked for further study while those that allow a tumor to continue growing can be cast aside.
The researchers are continuing to test their sensor in more cancer models and with more therapies to extend these initial findings. Already, they have identified at least three significant advantages of their device in early cancer drug testing:
• FAST is non-invasive and captures precise measurements on its own.
• It can provide continuous monitoring, for weeks, months, or over the course of study.
• The flexible sensor fully surrounds the tumor and can therefore detect 3D changes in shape that would be hard to pick up otherwise in real-time with existing technologies.
By now, you are probably asking yourself: Could FAST also be applied as a wearable for cancer patients to monitor in real-time whether an approved chemotherapy regimen is working? It is too early to say. So far, FAST has not been tested in people. But, as highlighted in this paper, FAST is off to, well, a fast start and points to the vast potential of wearables in human health, wellness, and also in the lab.
 A flexible electronic strain sensor for the real-time monitoring of tumor regression. Abramson A, Chan CT, Khan Y, Mermin-Bunnell A, Matsuhisa N, Fong R, Shad R, Hiesinger W, Mallick P, Gambhir SS, Bao Z. Sci Adv. 2022 Sep 16;8(37):eabn6550.
Stanford Wearable Electronics Initiative (Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA)
Bao Group (Stanford University)
Abramson Lab (Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta)
NIH Support: National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering