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 Dr. Francis Collins
To protect humans from COVID-19, the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines program human cells to translate the injected synthetic messenger RNA into the coronavirus spike protein, which then primes the immune system to arm itself against future appearances of that protein. It turns out that the immune system can also be trained to spot and attack distinctive proteins on cancer cells, killing them and leaving healthy cells potentially untouched.
While these precision cancer vaccines remain experimental, researchers continue to make basic discoveries that move the field forward. That includes a recent NIH-funded study in mice that helps to refine the selection of protein targets on tumors as a way to boost the immune response . To enable this boost, the researchers first had to discover a possible solution to a longstanding challenge in developing precision cancer vaccines: T cell exhaustion.
The term refers to the immune system’s complement of T cells and their capacity to learn to recognize foreign proteins, also known as neoantigens, and attack them on cancer cells to shrink tumors. But these responding T cells can exhaust themselves attacking tumors, limiting the immune response and making its benefits short-lived.
In this latest study, published in the journal Cell, Tyler Jacks and Megan Burger, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, help to explain this phenomenon of T cell exhaustion. The researchers found in mice with lung tumors that the immune system initially responds as it should. It produces lots of T cells that target many different cancer-specific proteins.
Yet there’s a problem: various subsets of T cells get in each other’s way. They compete until, eventually, one of those subsets becomes the dominant T cell type. Even when those dominant T cells grow exhausted, they still remain in the tumor and keep out other T cells, which might otherwise attack different neoantigens in the cancer.
Building on this basic discovery, the researchers came up with a strategy for developing cancer vaccines that can “awaken” T cells and reinvigorate the body’s natural cancer-fighting abilities. The strategy might seem counterintuitive. The researchers vaccinated mice with neoantigens that provide a weak but encouraging signal to the immune cells responsible for presenting the distinctive cancer protein target, or antigen, to T cells. It’s those T cells that tend to get suppressed in competition with other T cells.
When the researchers vaccinated the mice with one of those neoantigens, the otherwise suppressed T cells grew in numbers and better targeted the tumor. What’s more, the tumors shrank by more than 25 percent on average.
Research on this new strategy remains in its early stages. The researchers hope to learn if this approach to cancer vaccines might work even better when used in combination with immunotherapy drugs, which unleash the immune system against cancer in other ways.
It’s also possible that the recent and revolutionary success of mRNA vaccines for preventing COVID-19 actually could help. An important advantage of mRNA is that it’s easy for researchers to synthesize once they know the specific nucleic acid sequence of a protein target, and they can even combine different mRNA sequences to make a multiplex vaccine that primes the immune system to recognize multiple neoantigens. Now that we’ve seen how well mRNA vaccines work to prompt a desired immune response against COVID-19, this same technology can be used to speed the development and testing of future vaccines, including those designed precisely to fight cancer.
 Antigen dominance hierarchies shape TCF1+ progenitor CD8 T cell phenotypes in tumors. Burger ML, Cruz AM, Crossland GE, Gaglia G, Ritch CC, Blatt SE, Bhutkar A, Canner D, Kienka T, Tavana SZ, Barandiaran AL, Garmilla A, Schenkel JM, Hillman M, de Los Rios Kobara I, Li A, Jaeger AM, Hwang WL, Westcott PMK, Manos MP, Holovatska MM, Hodi FS, Regev A, Santagata S, Jacks T. Cell. 2021 Sep 16;184(19):4996-5014.e26.
Cancer Treatment Vaccines (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
The Jacks Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)
NIH Support: National Cancer Institute; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
For those who track cancer statistics, this year started off on a positive note with word that lung cancer deaths continue to decline in the United States . While there’s plenty of credit to go around for that encouraging news—and continued reduction in smoking is a big factor—some of this progress likely can be ascribed to a type of immunotherapy, called PD-1 inhibitors. This revolutionary approach has dramatically changed the treatment landscape for the most common type of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).
PD-1 inhibitors, which have only been available for about five years, prime one component of a patient’s own immune system, called T cells, to seek and destroy malignant cells in the lungs. Unfortunately, however, only about 20 percent of people with NSCLC respond to PD-1 inhibitors. So, many researchers, including the team of A. McGarry Houghton, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, are working hard to extend the benefits of immunotherapy to more cancer patients.
The team’s latest paper, published in JCI Insight , reveals that one culprit behind a poor response to immunotherapy may be the immune system’s own first responders: neutrophils. Billions of neutrophils circulate throughout the body to track down abnormalities, such as harmful bacteria and malignant cells. They also contact other parts of the immune system, including T cells, if help is needed to eliminate the health threat.
In their study, the Houghton team, led by Julia Kargl, combined several lab techniques to take a rigorous, unbiased look at the immune cell profiles of tumor samples from dozens of NSCLC patients who received PD-1 inhibitors as a frontline treatment. The micrographs above show tumor samples from two of these patients.
In the image on the left, large swaths of T cells (light blue) have infiltrated the cancer cells (white specks). Interestingly, other immune cells, including neutrophils (magenta), are sparse.
In contrast, in the image on the right, T cells (light blue) are sparse. Instead, the tumor teems with other types of immune cells, including macrophages (red), two types of monocytes (yellow, green), and, most significantly, lots of neutrophils (magenta). These cells arise from myeloid progenitor cells in the bone marrow, while T cells arise from the marrow’s lymphoid progenitor cell.
Though the immune profiles of some tumor samples were tough to classify, the researchers found that most fit neatly into two subgroups: tumors showing active levels of T cell infiltration (like the image on the left) or those with large numbers of myeloid immune cells, especially neutrophils (like the image on the right). This dichotomy then served as a reliable predictor of treatment outcome. In the tumor samples with majority T cells, the PD-1 inhibitor worked to varying degrees. But in the tumor samples with predominantly neutrophil infiltration, the treatment failed.
Houghton’s team has previously found that many cancers, including NSCLC, actively recruit neutrophils, turning them into zombie-like helpers that falsely signal other immune cells, like T cells, to stay away. Based on this information, Houghton and colleagues used a mouse model of lung cancer to explore a possible way to increase the success rate of PD-1 immunotherapy.
In their mouse experiments, the researchers found that when PD-1 was combined with an existing drug that inhibits neutrophils, lung tumors infiltrated with neutrophils were converted into tumors infiltrated by T cells. The tumors treated with the combination treatment also expressed genes associated with an active immunotherapy response.
This year, January brought encouraging news about decreasing deaths from lung cancer. But with ongoing basic research, like this study, to tease out the mechanisms underlying the success and failure of immunotherapy, future months may bring even better news.
 Cancer statistics, 2020. Siegel RL, Miller KD, Jemal A. CA Cancer J Clin. 2020 Jan;70(1):7-30.
 Neutrophil content predicts lymphocyte depletion and anti-PD1 treatment failure in NSCLC. Kargl J, Zhu X, Zhang H, Yang GHY, Friesen TJ, Shipley M, Maeda DY, Zebala JA, McKay-Fleisch J, Meredith G, Mashadi-Hossein A, Baik C, Pierce RH, Redman MW, Thompson JC, Albelda SM, Bolouri H, Houghton AM. JCI Insight. 2019 Dec 19;4(24).
 Neutrophils dominate the immune cell composition in non-small cell lung cancer. Kargl J, Busch SE, Yang GH, Kim KH, Hanke ML, Metz HE, Hubbard JJ, Lee SM, Madtes DK, McIntosh MW, Houghton AM. Nat Commun. 2017 Feb 1;8:14381.
Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Spotlight on McGarry Houghton (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle)
Houghton Lab (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center)
NIH Support: National Cancer Institute
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Despite continued progress in treatment and prevention, lung cancer remains our nation’s leading cause of cancer death. In fact, more Americans die of lung cancer each year than of breast, colon, and prostate cancers combined [1,2]. While cigarette smoking is a major cause, lung cancer also occurs in non-smokers. I’m pleased to report discovery of what we hope will be a much-needed drug target for a highly aggressive, difficult-to-treat form of the disease, called small cell lung cancer (SCLC).
Using gene-editing technology to conduct a systematic, large-scale search for druggable vulnerabilities in certain types of cancer cells grown in lab dishes, NIH-funded researchers recently identified a metabolic pathway that appears to play a key role in SCLC. What makes this news even more encouraging is drugs that block this pathway already exist. That includes one in clinical testing for other types of cancer, and another that’s FDA-approved and has been safely used for more than 20 years to treat people with rheumatoid arthritis.
The new work comes from the lab of Tyler Jacks, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge. The Jacks lab, which is dedicated to understanding the genetic events that lead to cancer, develops mouse models engineered to carry the same genetic mutations that turn up in human cancers.
In work described in Science Translational Medicine, the team, co-led by Leanne Li and Sheng Rong Ng, applied CRISPR gene-editing tools to cells grown from some of their mouse models. Aiming high in terms of scale, researchers used CRISPR to knock out systematically, one by one, each of about 5,000 genes in cells from the SCLC mouse model, as well in cells from mouse models of other types of lung and pancreatic cancers. They looked to see what gene knockouts would slow down or kill the cancer cells, because that would be a good indication that the protein products of these genes, or the pathways they mediated, would be potential drug targets.
Out of those thousands of genes, one rose to the top of the list. It encodes an enzyme called DHODH (dihydroorotate dehydrogenase). This enzyme plays an important role in synthesizing pyrimidine, which is a major building block in DNA and RNA. Cytosine and thymine, the C and T in the four-letter DNA code, are pyrimidines; so is uracil, the U in RNA that takes the place of T in DNA. Because cancer cells are constantly dividing, there is a continual need to synthesize new DNA and RNA molecules to support the production of new daughter cells. And that means, unlike healthy cells, cancer cells require a steady supply of pyrimidine.
It turns out that the SCLC cells have an unexpected weakness relative to other cancer cells: they don’t produce as much pyrimidine. As a result, the researchers found blocking DHODH left the cells short on pyrimidine, leading to reduced growth and survival of the cancer.
This was especially good news because DHODH-blocking drugs, including one called brequinar, have already been tested in clinical trials for other cancers. In fact, brequinar is now being explored as a potential treatment for acute myeloid leukemia.
Might brequinar also hold promise for treating SCLC? To explore further, the researchers looked again to their genetic mouse model of SCLC. Their studies showed that mice treated with brequinar lived about 40 days longer than control animals. That’s a significant survival benefit in this system.
Brequinar treatment appeared to work even better when combined with other approved cancer drugs in mice that had SCLC cells transplanted into them. Further study in mice carrying SCLC tumors derived from four human patients added to this evidence. Two of the four human tumors shrunk in mice treated with brequinar.
Of course, mice are not people. But the findings suggest that brequinar or another DHODH blocker might hold promise as a new way to treat SCLC. While more study is needed to understand even better how brequinar works and explore potentially promising drug combinations, the fact that this drug is already in human testing for another indication suggests that a clinical trial to explore its use for SCLC might happen more quickly.
More broadly, the new findings show the promise of gene-editing technology as a research tool for uncovering elusive cancer targets. Such hard-fought discoveries will help to advance precise approaches to the treatment of even the most aggressive cancer types. And that should come as encouraging news to all those who are hoping to find new answers for hard-to-treat cancers.
 Cancer Stat Facts: Lung and Bronchus Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
 Key Statistics for Lung Cancer (American Cancer Society)
 Identification of DHODH as a therapeutic target in small cell lung cancer. Li L, Ng SR, Colón CI, Drapkin BJ, Hsu PP, Li Z, Nabel CS, Lewis CA, Romero R, Mercer KL, Bhutkar A, Phat S, Myers DT, Muzumdar MD, Westcott PMK, Beytagh MC, Farago AF, Vander Heiden MG, Dyson NJ, Jacks T. Sci Transl Med. 2019 Nov 6;11(517).
Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (NCI/NIH)
Tyler Jacks (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)
NIH Support: National Cancer Institute