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Tackling Cancer Metastasis with Engineered Blood Platelets

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Tara Deans
Credit: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering, Salt Lake City

When cancer cells spread to new parts of the body in a process called metastasis, they often get there by traveling through the bloodstream. To avoid alerting the immune system and possibly triggering their demise, cancer cells coax circulating blood platelets to glom onto their surfaces and mask them from detection. This deceptive arrangement has raised a tantalizing possibility: What if blood platelets could be programmed to recognize and take out those metastasizing cancer cells?

Tara Deans, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, was recently awarded a 2019 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to do exactly that. It’s an exciting opportunity for a researcher who stumbled onto this innovative strategy quite by accident.

Deans is a bioengineer and expert in designing synthetic gene circuits. These circuits consist of small collections of genetic “parts” that can be assembled and integrated to program cells to behave differently than their natural counterparts [1]. In her initial work, Deans got these specialized gene circuits to prompt blood-forming stem cells to mass-produce platelets in the lab.

But blood platelets are unusual cells. They’re packed with many proteins that help to repair small nicks in blood vessels and stop the bleeding when we’re injured. Blood platelets do so even though they lack a nucleus and DNA to encode and make any of the proteins. Their protein cargo is pre-packaged and comes strictly from the bone marrow cells, called megakaryocytes, that produce them.

Deans realized that engineering platelets might pose a rare opportunity. She could wire the needed circuitry into the blood-forming stem cells and engineer them to make any desired therapeutic proteins, which are then loaded into the blood platelets for their 8- to 10-day lifespan. She started out producing blood platelets that could safely carry functional replacement enzymes in people with certain rare metabolic disorders.

As this research progressed, Deans got some troubling personal news: A friend was diagnosed with a blood cancer. At the time, Deans didn’t know much about the diagnosis. But, in reading about her friend’s cancer, she learned how metastasizing tumor cells interact with platelets.

That’s when Deans had her “aha” moment: maybe the engineered platelets could also be put to work in preventing metastasizing tumor cells from spreading.

Now, with her New Innovator Award, Deans will pursue this novel approach by engineering platelets to carry potentially promising cancer-fighting proteins. In principle, they could be tailored to fight breast, lung, and various other cancer types. Ultimately, she hopes that platelets could be engineered to target and kill circulating cancer cells before they move into other tissues.

There’s plenty of research ahead to work out the details of targeting the circulating cancer cells and then testing them in animal models before this strategy could ever be attempted in people. But Deans is excited about the path forward, and thinks that platelets hold great promise to function as unique drug delivery devices. It has not escaped her notice that this approach could work not only for controlling the spread of cancer cells, but also in treating other medical conditions.

Reference:

[1] Genetic circuits to engineer tissues with alternative functions. Healy CP, Deans TL. J Biol Eng. 2019 May 3;13:39.

Links:

Metastatic Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Deans Lab (University of Utah, Salt Lake City)

Deans Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute


Working to Improve Immunotherapy for Lung Cancer

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Lung Cancer Immunotherapy
Credit: Xiaodong Zhu, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle

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 [1]. 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 [2], 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.

References:

[1] Cancer statistics, 2020. Siegel RL, Miller KD, Jemal A. CA Cancer J Clin. 2020 Jan;70(1):7-30.

[2] 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).

[3] 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.

Links:

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


Study Suggests Repurposed Drugs Might Treat Aggressive Lung Cancer

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Small cell lung cancer cells
Caption: Small cell lung cancer cells (red) spreading via blood vessels (white) from the lung to the liver of a genetically-engineered mouse model.
Credit: Leanne Li, Koch Institute at MIT

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.

References:

[1] Cancer Stat Facts: Lung and Bronchus Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

[2] Key Statistics for Lung Cancer (American Cancer Society)

[3] 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).

Links:

Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (NCI/NIH)

Video: Introduction to Genome Editing Using CRISPR Cas9 (NIH)

Tyler Jacks (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute


Panel Finds Exercise May Lower Cancer Risk, Improve Outcomes

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Mature woman doing moderate exercise
Credit: gettyimages/vgajic

Exercise can work wonders for your health, including strengthening muscles and bones, and boosting metabolism, mood, and memory skills. Now comes word that staying active may also help to lower your odds of developing cancer. 

After reviewing the scientific evidence, a panel of experts recently concluded that physical activity is associated with reduced risks for seven common types of cancer: colon, breast, kidney, endometrial, bladder, stomach, and esophageal adenocarcinoma. What’s more, the experts found that exercise—both before and after a cancer diagnosis—was linked to improved survival among people with breast, colorectal, or prostate cancers.

About a decade ago, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) convened its first panel of experts to review the evidence on the role of exercise in cancer. At the time, there was limited evidence to suggest a connection between exercise and a reduced risk for breast, colon, and perhaps a few other cancer types. There also were some hints that exercise might help to improve survival among people with a diagnosis of cancer.

Today, the evidence linking exercise and cancer has grown considerably. That’s why the ACSM last year convened a group of 40 experts to perform a comprehensive review of the research literature and summarize the level of the evidence. The team, including Charles Matthews and Frank Perna with the NIH’s National Cancer Institute, reported its findings and associated guidelines and recommendations in three papers just published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise and CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians [1,2,3].

Here are some additional highlights from the papers:

Ÿ There’s moderate evidence to support an association between exercise and reduced risk for some other cancer types, including cancers of the lung and liver.

Ÿ While the optimal amount of exercise needed to reduce cancer risk is still unclear, being physically active is clearly one of the most important steps in general that people of all ages and abilities can take.

Ÿ Is sitting the new smoking? Reducing the amount of time spent sitting also may help to lower the risk of some cancers, including endometrial, colon, and lung cancers. However, there’s not enough evidence to draw clear conclusions yet.

Ÿ Every cancer survivor should, within reason, “avoid inactivity.” There’s plenty of evidence to show that aerobic and resistance exercise training improves many cancer-related health outcomes, reducing anxiety, depression, and fatigue while improving physical functioning and quality of life.

Ÿ Physical activity before and after a diagnosis of cancer also may help to improve survival in some cancers, with perhaps the greatest benefits coming from exercise during and/or after cancer treatment.

Based on the evidence, the panel recommends that cancer survivors engage in moderate-intensity exercise, including aerobic and resistance training, at least two to three times a week. They should exercise for about 30 minutes per session.

The recommendation is based on added confirmation that exercise is generally safe for cancer survivors. The data indicate exercise can lead to improvements in anxiety, depression, fatigue, overall quality of life, and in some cases survival.

The panel also recommends that treatment teams and fitness professionals more systematically incorporate “exercise prescriptions” into cancer care. They should develop the resources to design exercise prescriptions that deliver the right amount of exercise to meet the specific needs, preferences, and abilities of people with cancer.

The ACSM has launched the “Moving Through Cancer” initiative. This initiative will help raise awareness about the importance of exercise during cancer treatment and help support doctors in advising their patients on those benefits.

It’s worth noting that there are still many fascinating questions to explore. While exercise is known to support better health in a variety of ways, correlation is not the same as causation. Questions remain about the underlying mechanisms that may help to explain the observed associations between physical activity, lowered cancer risk, and improved cancer survival.

An intensive NIH research effort, called the Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium (MoTrPAC), is underway to identify molecular mechanisms that might explain the wide-ranging benefits of physical exercise. It might well shed light on cancer, too.

As that evidence continues to come in, the findings are yet another reminder of the importance of exercise to our health. Everybody—people who are healthy, those with cancer, and cancer survivors alike—should make an extra effort to remain as physically active as our ages, abilities, and current health will allow. If I needed any more motivation to keep up my program of vigorous exercise twice a week, guided by an experienced trainer, here it is!

References:

[1] Exercise Is Medicine in Oncology: Engaging Clinicians to Help Patients Move Through Cancer. Schmitz KH, Campbell AM, Stuiver MM, Pinto BM, Schwartz AL, Morris GS, Ligibel JA, Cheville A, Galvão, DA, Alfano CM, Patel AV, Hue T, Gerber LH, Sallis R, Gusani NJ, Stout NL, Chan L, Flowers F, Doyle C, Helmrich S, Bain W, Sokolof J, Winters-Stone KM, Campbell KL, Matthews CE.  CA Cancer J Clin. 2019 Oct 16 [Epub ahead of publication]

[2] American College of Sports Medicine Roundtable Report on Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Cancer Prevention and Control. Patel AV, Friedenreich CM, Moore SC, Hayes SC, Silver JK, Campbell KL, Gerber LH, George SM, Fulton JE, Denlinger C, Morris GS, Hue T, Schmitz KH, Matthews CE. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Oct 16. [Epub ahead of publication]

[3] Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors: Consensus Statement from International Multidisciplinary Roundtable. Campbell KL, Winters-Stone KM, Wiskemann J, May AM, Schwartz AL, Courneya KS, Zucker DS, Matthews CE, Ligibel JA, Gerber LH, Morris GS, Patel AV, Hue TF, Perna FM, Schmitz KH. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Oct 16. [Epub ahead of publication]

Links:

Physical Activity and Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Moving Through Cancer (American College of Sports Medicine, Indianapolis, IN)

American College of Sports Medicine

Charles Matthews (NCI)

Frank Perna (NCI)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute


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].


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