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New Target for Cancer Immunotherapy: Exosomes

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It was once a central tenet of biology that RNA molecules did their work inside the cell. But it’s now clear that RNA molecules are also active outside the cell, with potentially major implications for our health. To learn more about these unrecognized roles, the NIH Common Fund has launched the Extracellular RNA (exRNA) Communication Program.

This month, members of this research consortium described their latest progress in unraveling the secrets of exRNA in a group of 18 papers in the Cell family of journals. And it’s not just RNA that the consortium is studying, it’s also proteins. Among the many exciting results just published is the serendipitous discovery that proteins carried inside tiny, bubble-like vesicles, called exosomes, may influence a cancer’s response to immunotherapy [1]. The work sheds light on why certain cancers are resistant to immunotherapy and points to new strategies for unleashing the immune system in the fight against cancer.

The new findings center on a type of immunotherapy drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors. They are monoclonal antibodies produced by industry that can boost the immune system’s ability to attack and treat cancer.

One of those antibodies specifically targets a protein, called PD-1, on the surface of certain immune cells. When PD-1 binds a similarly named protein, called PD-L1, on the surface of another cell, the interaction prevents immune cells from attacking. Some tumors seem to have learned this and load up on PD-L1 to evade the immune system.

That’s where checkpoint inhibitors come in. By blocking the interaction between PD-1 and PD-L1, the treatment removes a key check on the immune system, allowing certain immune cells to wake up and attack the tumor.

Checkpoint inhibitors work better in some cancer types than in others. In melanoma, for example, up to about 30 percent of patients respond to checkpoint inhibitor therapy. But in prostate cancer, response rates are in the single digits.

Researchers led by Robert Blelloch, a member of the exRNA consortium and a scientist at the University of California, San Francisco, wanted to know why. He and his team looked for clues in RNA within the cells taken from immunotherapy-resistant prostate cancers.

As published in Cell, the researchers got their first hint of something biologically intriguing in an apparent discrepancy in their data. As they expected from prior work, PD-L1 protein was present in the treatment-resistant cancers. But the PD-L1 messenger RNAs (mRNA), which serve as templates for producing the protein, told an unexpected story. The resistant cancer cells made far more PD-L1 mRNAs than needed to produce the modest levels of PD-L1 proteins detected inside the cells.

Where was the missing PD-L1? Blelloch’s team found it in exosomes. The cancer cells were packaging large quantities of the protein inside exosomes and secreting them out of the cell to other parts of the body.

In additional studies with a mouse model of prostate cancer, the researchers found that those PD-L1-packed exosomes travel through the blood and lymphatic systems to lymph nodes, the sites where immune cells become activated. Once there, PD-L1-laden exosomes put the immune system to sleep, preventing certain key cells from locating and attacking the cancer, including the primary tumor and places where it may have spread.

In important follow up studies, the researchers edited two genes in cancer cells to prevent them from producing exosomes. And, in the absence of exosomes, the cells no longer formed tumors. Importantly, both edited and unedited cells still produced PD-L1, but only those that exported PD-L1 in exosomes disarmed the immune system. Studies in a mouse model of immunotherapy-resistant colorectal cancer yielded similar results.

The new evidence suggests that blocking the release of PD-L1 in exosomes, even temporarily, might allow the immune system to launch a successful and sustained attack against a cancer.

Blelloch notes that many intriguing questions remain. For example, it’s not yet clear why antibodies that target PD-L1 on cancer cells don’t disable PD-L1 found in exosomes. The good news is that the new findings suggest it may be possible to find small molecules that do target PD-L1-packed exosomes, unleashing the immune system against cancers that don’t respond to existing checkpoint inhibitors. In fact, Blelloch’s team is already screening for small molecules that might fit the bill.

Since its launch about five years ago, the exRNA Communication Program has published an impressive 480 peer-reviewed papers, including the latest work in the Cell family of journals. I’d encourage readers to click on some of the other excellent work. I hear that another batch of papers will be published later this year.

Reference:

[1] Suppression of exosomal PD-L induces systemic anti-tumor immunity and memory. Poggio M, Hu T, Pai CC, Chu B, Belair CD, Chang A, Montabana E, Lang UE, Fu Q, Fong L, Blelloch R. Cell. 2019 Apr 4;177(2):414-427.

Links:

Video: Unlocking the Mysteries of RNA Communication (Common Fund/NIH)

Immunotherapy to Treat Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Blelloch Lab (University of California, San Francisco)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute on Drug Abuse


Are Some Tumors Just ‘Born to Be Bad’?

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Human Colon Cancer Cells

Caption: Human colon cancer cells.
Credit: National Cancer Institute, NIH

Thanks to improvements in screening technologies and public health outreach, more cancers are being detected early. While that’s life-saving news for many people, it does raise some important questions about the management of small, early-stage tumors. Do some tumors take a long time to smolder in their original location before they spread, or metastasize, while others track to new, distant, and dangerous sites early in their course? Or, as the authors of a new NIH-funded study put it, are certain tumors just “born to be bad”?

To get some answers, these researchers recently used genomic data from 19 human colorectal tumors (malignant and benign) to model tumor development over time [1]. Their computer simulations showed that malignant tumors displayed distinctive spatial patterns of genetic mutations associated with early cell mobility. Cell mobility is a prerequisite for malignancy, and it indicates an elevated risk of tumors invading the surrounding tissue and spreading to other parts of the body. What’s more, the team’s experimental work uncovered evidence of early abnormal cell movement in more than half of the invasive tumors.

Much more remains to be done to validate these findings and extend them to other types of cancer. But the study suggests that spatial mutation patterns may someday prove useful in helping decide whether to pursue aggressive treatment for early-stage cancer or opt for careful monitoring instead.


KRAS Targeted Cancer Strategy Shows Early Promise

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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].


New ‘Liquid Biopsy’ Shows Early Promise in Detecting Cancer

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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.


Creative Minds: Using Machine Learning to Understand Genome Function

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Anshul Kundaje

Anshul Kundaje / Credit: Nalini Kartha

Science has always fascinated Anshul Kundaje, whether it was biology, physics, or chemistry. When he left his home country of India to pursue graduate studies in electrical engineering at Columbia University, New York, his plan was to focus on telecommunications and computer networks. But a course in computational genomics during his first semester showed him he could follow his interest in computing without giving up his love for biology.

Now an assistant professor of genetics and computer science at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, Kundaje has received a 2016 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to explore not just how the human genome sequence encodes function, but also why it functions in the way that it does. Kundaje even envisions a time when it might be possible to use sophisticated computational approaches to predict the genomic basis of many human diseases.


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