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Camp Fantastic 2019

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Camp Fantastic 2019
On August 15, I spent the evening at Camp Fantastic, Front Royal, VA, with my wife Diane Baker (front) and all these incredible kids. Camp Fantastic allows children undergoing cancer treatment to spend a week around the campfire and feel like regular kids again. So far, more than 2,000 children have benefited from this wonderful program. I should note that camp volunteers are asked to wear funny hats, which I gladly did. So did Steve Chanock (middle left), the camp’s medical director and a researcher at NIH’s National Cancer Institute. He’s the one in the corn cap. Credit: NIH.

Rolling Up on Secret Little Car Show

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Secret Little Car Show
The Children’s Inn at NIH held its second-annual Secret Little Car Show on June 18, 2019. I joined the fun on my motorcycle. The Secret Little Car Show aims to bring joy to seriously ill children and their families staying at The Children’s Inn. Greeting me is Bruce Lee, Driven to Cure, Silver Spring, MD. Bruce is the father of Andrew Lee, founder of Driven to Cure, who passed away recently from kidney cancer. The eye-catching orange vehicle is Andrew’s amazing 2015 Liberty Walk Nissan GT-R. Credit: NIH

Fighting Cancer with Next-Gen Cell Engineering

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Kole Roybal
Credit: Susan Merrell

Researchers continue to make progress with cancer immunotherapy, a type of treatment that harnesses the body’s own immune cells to attack cancer. But Kole Roybal wants to help move the field further ahead by engineering patients’ immune cells to detect an even broader range of cancers and then launch customized attacks against them.

With an eye toward developing the next generation of cell-based immunotherapies, this synthetic biologist at University of California, San Francisco, has already innovatively hacked into how certain cells communicate with each other. Now, he and his research team are using a 2018 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to build upon that progress.

Roybal’s initial inspiration is CAR-T therapy, one of the most advanced immunotherapies to date. In CAR-T therapy, some of a cancer patient’s key immune cells, called T cells, are removed and engineered in a way that they begin to produce new surface proteins called chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). Those receptors allow the cells to recognize and attack cancer cells more effectively. After expanding the number of these engineered T cells in the lab, doctors infuse them back into patients to enhance their immune systems’s ability to seek-and-destroy their cancer.

As helpful as this approach has been for some people with leukemia, lymphoma, and certain other cancers, it has its limitations. For one, CAR-T therapy relies solely on a T cell’s natural activation program, which can be toxic to patients if the immune cells damage healthy tissues. In other patients, the response simply isn’t strong enough to eradicate a cancer.

Roybal realized that redirecting T cells to attack a broader range of cancers would take more than simply engineering the receptors to bind to cancer cells. It also would require sculpting novel immune cell responses once those receptors were triggered.

Roybal found a solution in a new class of lab-made receptors known as Synthetic Notch, or SynNotch, that he and his colleagues have been developing over the last several years [1, 2]. Notch protein receptors play an essential role in developmental pathways and cell-to-cell communication across a wide range of animal species. What Roybal and his colleagues found especially intriguing is the protein receptors’ mode of action is remarkably direct.

When a protein binds the Notch receptor, a portion of the receptor breaks off and heads for the cell nucleus, where it acts as a switch to turn on other genes. They realized that engineering a cancer patient’s immune cells with synthetic SynNotch receptors could offer extraordinary flexibility in customized sensing and response behaviors. What’s more, the receptors could be tailored to respond to a number of user-specified cues outside of a cell.

In his NIH-supported work, Roybal will devise various versions of SynNotch-engineered cells targeting solid tumors that have proven difficult to treat with current cell therapies. He reports that they are currently developing the tools to engineer cells to sense a broad spectrum of cancers, including melanoma, glioblastoma, and pancreatic cancer.

They’re also engineering cells equipped to respond to a tumor by producing a range of immune factors, including antibodies known to unleash the immune system against cancer. He says he’ll also work on adding engineered SynNotch molecules to other immune cell types, not just T cells.

Given the versatility of the approach, Roybal doesn’t plan to stop there. He’s also interested in regenerative medicine and in engineering therapeutic cells to treat autoimmune conditions. I’m looking forward to see just how far these and other next-gen cell therapies will take us.


[1] Engineering Customized Cell Sensing and Response Behaviors Using Synthetic Notch Receptors. Morsut L, Roybal KT, Xiong X, Gordley RM, Coyle SM, Thomson M, Lim WA. Cell. 2016 Feb 11;164(4):780-91.

[2] Engineering T Cells with Customized Therapeutic Response Programs Using Synthetic Notch Receptors. Roybal KT, Williams JZ, Morsut L, Rupp LJ, Kolinko I, Choe JH, Walker WJ, McNally KA, Lim WA. Cell. 2016 Oct 6;167(2):419-432.e16.


Car-T Cells: Engineering Patients’ Immune Cells to Treat Cancers (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Synthetic Biology for Technology Development (National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering/NIH)

Roybal Lab (University of California, San Francisco)

Roybal Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute

Study Finds Genetic Mutations in Healthy Human Tissues

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General mutations throughout the body

The standard view of biology is that every normal cell copies its DNA instruction book with complete accuracy every time it divides. And thus, with a few exceptions like the immune system, cells in normal, healthy tissue continue to contain exactly the same genome sequence as was present in the initial single-cell embryo that gave rise to that individual. But new evidence suggests it may be time to revise that view.

By analyzing genetic information collected throughout the bodies of nearly 500 different individuals, researchers discovered that almost all had some seemingly healthy tissue that contained pockets of cells bearing particular genetic mutations. Some even harbored mutations in genes linked to cancer. The findings suggest that nearly all of us are walking around with genetic mutations within various parts of our bodies that, under certain circumstances, may have the potential to give rise to cancer or other health conditions.

Efforts such as NIH’s The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) have extensively characterized the many molecular and genomic alterations underlying various types of cancer. But it has remained difficult to pinpoint the precise sequence of events that lead to cancer, and there are hints that so-called normal tissues, including blood and skin, might contain a surprising number of mutations —perhaps starting down a path that would eventually lead to trouble.

In the study published in Science, a team from the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, led by Gad Getz and postdoctoral fellow Keren Yizhak, along with colleagues from Massachusetts General Hospital, decided to take a closer look. They turned their attention to the NIH’s Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx) project.

The GTEx is a comprehensive public resource that shows how genes are expressed and controlled differently in various tissues throughout the body. To capture those important differences, GTEx researchers analyzed messenger RNA sequences within thousands of healthy tissue samples collected from people who died of causes other than cancer.

Getz, Yizhak, and colleagues wanted to use that extensive RNA data in another way: to detect mutations that had arisen in the DNA genomes of cells within those tissues. To do it, they devised a method for comparing those tissue-derived RNA samples to the matched normal DNA. They call the new method RNA-MuTect.

All told, the researchers analyzed RNA sequences from 29 tissues, including heart, stomach, pancreas, and fat, and matched DNA from 488 individuals in the GTEx database. Those analyses showed that the vast majority of people—a whopping 95 percent—had one or more tissues with pockets of cells carrying new genetic mutations.

While many of those genetic mutations are most likely harmless, some have known links to cancer. The data show that genetic mutations arise most often in the skin, esophagus, and lung tissues. This suggests that exposure to environmental elements—such as air pollution in the lung, carcinogenic dietary substances in the esophagus, or the ultraviolet radiation in sunlight that hits the skin—may play important roles in causing genetic mutations in different parts of the body.

The findings clearly show that, even within normal tissues, the DNA in the cells of our bodies isn’t perfectly identical. Rather, mutations constantly arise, and that makes our cells more of a mosaic of different mutational events. Sometimes those altered cells may have a subtle growth advantage, and thus continue dividing to form larger groups of cells with slightly changed genomic profiles. In other cases, those altered cells may remain in small numbers or perhaps even disappear.

It’s not yet clear to what extent such pockets of altered cells may put people at greater risk for developing cancer down the road. But the presence of these genetic mutations does have potentially important implications for early cancer detection. For instance, it may be difficult to distinguish mutations that are truly red flags for cancer from those that are harmless and part of a new idea of what’s “normal.”

To further explore such questions, it will be useful to study the evolution of normal mutations in healthy human tissues over time. It’s worth noting that so far, the researchers have only detected these mutations in large populations of cells. As the technology advances, it will be interesting to explore such questions at the higher resolution of single cells.

Getz’s team will continue to pursue such questions, in part via participation in the recently launched NIH Pre-Cancer Atlas. It is designed to explore and characterize pre-malignant human tumors comprehensively. While considerable progress has been made in studying cancer and other chronic diseases, it’s clear we still have much to learn about the origins and development of illness to build better tools for early detection and control.


[1] RNA sequence analysis reveals macroscopic somatic clonal expansion across normal tissues. Yizhak K, Aguet F, Kim J, Hess JM, Kübler K, Grimsby J, Frazer R, Zhang H, Haradhvala NJ, Rosebrock D, Livitz D, Li X, Arich-Landkof E, Shoresh N, Stewart C, Segrè AV, Branton PA, Polak P, Ardlie KG, Getz G. Science. 2019 Jun 7;364(6444).


Genotype-Tissue Expression Program

The Cancer Genome Atlas (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Pre-Cancer Atlas (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Getz Lab (Broad Institute, Cambridge, MA)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute of Mental Health; National Cancer Institute; National Library of Medicine; National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke

Deciphering Another Secret of Life

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Srivatsan Raman
Credit: Robin Davies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

In 1953, Francis Crick famously told the surprised customers at the Eagle and Child pub in London that he and Jim Watson had discovered the secret of life. When NIH’s Marshall Nirenberg and his colleagues cracked the genetic code in 1961, it was called the solution to life’s greatest secret. Similarly, when the complete human genome sequence was revealed for the first time in 2003, commentators (including me) referred to this as the moment where the book of life for humans was revealed. But there are many more secrets of life that still need to be unlocked, including figuring out the biochemical rules of a protein shape-shifting phenomenon called allostery [1].

Among those taking on this ambitious challenge is a recipient of a 2018 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, Srivatsan Raman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If successful, such efforts could revolutionize biology by helping us better understand how allosteric proteins reconfigure themselves in the right shapes at the right times to regulate cell signaling, metabolism, and many other important biological processes.

What exactly is an allosteric protein? Proteins have active, or orthosteric, sites that turn the proteins off or on when specific molecules bind to them. Some proteins also have less obvious regulatory, or allosteric, sites that indirectly affect the proteins’ activity when outside molecules bind to them. In many instances, allosteric binding triggers a change in the shape of the protein.

Allosteric proteins include oxygen-carrying hemoglobin and a variety of enzymes crucial to human health and development. In his work, Raman will start by studying a relatively simple bacterial protein, consisting of less than 200 amino acids, to understand the basics of how allostery works over time and space.

Raman, who is a synthetic biologist, got the idea for this project a few years ago while tinkering in the lab to modify an allosteric protein to bind new molecules. As part of the process, he and his team used a new technology called deep mutational scanning to study the functional consequences of removing individual amino acids from the protein [2].

The screen took them on a wild ride of unexpected functional changes, and a new research opportunity called out to him. He could combine this scanning technology with artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge imaging and computational tools to probe allosteric proteins more systematically in hopes of deciphering the basic molecular rules of allostery.

With the New Innovator Award, Raman’s group will first create a vast number of protein mutants to learn how best to determine the allosteric signaling pathway(s) within a protein. They want to dissect out the properties of each amino acid and determine which connect into a binding site and precisely how those linkages are formed. The researchers also want to know how the amino acids tend to configure into an inactive state and how that structure changes into an active state.

Based on these initial studies, the researchers will take the next step and use their dataset to predict where allosteric pathways are found in individual proteins. They will also try to figure out if allosteric signals are sent in one direction only or whether they can be bidirectional.

The experiments will be challenging, but Raman is confident that they will serve to build a more unified view of how allostery works. In fact, he hopes the data generated—and there will be a massive amount—will reveal novel sites to control or exploit allosteric signaling. Such information will not only expand fundamental biological understanding, but will accelerate efforts to discover new therapies for diseases, such as cancer, in which disruption of allosteric proteins plays a crucial role.


[1] Allostery: an illustrated definition for the ‘second secret of life.’ Fenton AW. Trends Biochem Sci. 2008 Sep;33(9):420-425.

[2] Engineering an allosteric transcription factor to respond to new ligands. Taylor ND, Garruss AS, Moretti R, Chan S, Arbing MA, Cascio D, Rogers JK, Isaacs FJ, Kosuri S, Baker D, Fields S, Church GM, Raman S. Nat Methods. 2016 Feb;13(2):177-183.


Drug hunters explore allostery’s advantages. Jarvis LM, Chemical & Engineering News. 2019 March 10

Allostery: An Overview of Its History, Concepts, Methods, and Applications. Liu J, Nussinov R. PLoS Comput Biol. 2016 Jun 2;12(6):e1004966.

Srivatsan Raman (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Raman Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences; Common Fund

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