Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Women have the best odds of surviving breast cancer if their disease is caught at an early stage, when treatments are most likely to succeed. Major strides have been made in the early detection of breast cancer in recent years. But not all populations have benefited equally, with racial and ethnic minorities still more likely to be diagnosed with later-stage breast cancer than non-Hispanic whites. Given that recent observance of Martin Luther King Day, I thought that it would be particularly appropriate to address a leading example of health disparities.
A new NIH-funded study of more than 175,000 U.S. women diagnosed with breast cancer from 2010-2016 has found that nearly half of the troubling disparity in breast cancer detection can be traced to lack of adequate health insurance. The findings suggest that improving insurance coverage may help to increase early detection and thereby reduce the disproportionate number of breast cancer deaths among minority women.
Naomi Ko, Boston University School of Medicine, has had a long interest in understanding the cancer disparities she witnesses first-hand in her work as a medical oncologist. For the study published in JAMA Oncology, she teamed up with epidemiologist Gregory Calip, University of Illinois Cancer Center, Chicago . Their goal was to get beyond documenting disparities in breast cancer and take advantage of available data to begin to get at why such disparities exist and what to do about them.
Disparities in breast cancer outcomes surely stem from a complicated mix of factors, including socioeconomic factors, culture, diet, stress, environment, and biology. Ko and Calip focused their attention on insurance, thinking of it as a factor that society can collectively modify.
Many earlier studies had shown a link between insurance and cancer outcomes . It also stood to reason that broad differences among racial and ethnic minorities in their access to adequate insurance might drive some of the observed cancer disparities. But, Ko and Calip asked, just how big a factor was it?
To find out, they looked to the NIH’s Surveillance Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program, run by the National Cancer Institute. The SEER Program is an authoritative source of information on cancer incidence and survival in the United States.
The researchers focused their attention on 177,075 women of various races and ethnicities, ages 40 to 64. All had been diagnosed with invasive stage I to III breast cancer between 2010 and 2016.
The researchers found that a higher proportion of women receiving Medicaid or who were uninsured received a diagnosis of advanced stage III breast cancer compared with women with health insurance. Black, American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Hispanic women also had higher odds of receiving a late-stage diagnosis.
Overall, their sophisticated statistical analyses traced up to 47 percent of the racial/ethnic differences in the risk of locally advanced disease to differences in health insurance. Such late-stage diagnoses and the more extensive treatment regimens that go with them are clearly devastating for women with breast cancer and their families. But, the researchers note, they’re also costly for society, due to lost productivity and escalating treatment costs by stage of breast cancer.
These researchers surely aren’t alone in recognizing the benefit of early detection. Last week, an independent panel convened by NIH called for enhanced research to assess and explore how to reduce health disparities that lead to unequal access to health care and clinical services that help prevent disease.
 Association of Insurance Status and Racial Disparities With the Detection of Early-Stage Breast Cancer. Ko NY, Hong S, Winn RA, Calip GS. JAMA Oncol. 2020 Jan 9.
 The relation between health insurance coverage and clinical outcomes among women with breast cancer. Ayanian JZ, Kohler BA, Abe T, Epstein AM. N Engl J Med. 1993 Jul 29;329(5):326-31.
 Cancer Stat Facts: Female Breast Cancer. National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program.
Cancer Disparities (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Breast Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Naomi Ko (Boston University)
Gregory Calip (University of Illinois Cancer Center, Chicago)
NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Cancer Institute; National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Tumors rely on a variety of tricks to grow, spread, and resist our best attempts to destroy them. Now comes word of yet another of cancer’s surprising stunts: when chemotherapy treatment hits hard, some cancer cells survive by cannibalizing other cancer cells.
Researchers recently caught this ghoulish behavior on video. In what, during this Halloween season, might look a little bit like The Blob, you can see a down-for-the-count breast cancer cell (green), treated earlier with the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin, gobbling up a neighboring cancer cell (red). The surviving cell delivers its meal to internal compartments called lysosomes, which digest it in a last-ditch effort to get some nourishment and keep going despite what should have been a lethal dose of a cancer drug.
Crystal Tonnessen-Murray, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of James Jackson, Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans, captured these dramatic interactions using time-lapse and confocal microscopy. When Tonnessen-Murray saw the action, she almost couldn’t believe her eyes. Tumor cells eating tumor cells wasn’t something that she’d learned about in school.
As the NIH-funded team described in the Journal of Cell Biology, these chemotherapy-treated breast cancer cells were not only cannibalizing their neighbors, they were doing it with remarkable frequency . But why?
A possible explanation is that some cancer cells resist chemotherapy by going dormant and not dividing. The new study suggests that while in this dormant state, cannibalism is one way that tumor cells can keep going.
The study also found that these acts of cancer cell cannibalism depend on genetic programs closely resembling those of immune cells called macrophages. These scavenging cells perform their important protective roles by gobbling up invading bacteria, viruses, and other infectious microbes. Drug-resistant breast cancer cells have apparently co-opted similar programs in response to chemotherapy but, in this case, to eat their own neighbors.
Tonnessen-Murray’s team confirmed that cannibalizing cancer cells have a survival advantage. The findings suggest that treatments designed to block the cells’ cannibalistic tendencies might hold promise as a new way to treat otherwise hard-to-treat cancers. That’s a possibility the researchers are now exploring, although they report that stopping the cells from this dramatic survival act remains difficult.
 Chemotherapy-induced senescent cancer cells engulf other cells to enhance their survival. Tonnessen-Murray CA, Frey WD, Rao SG, Shahbandi A, Ungerleider NA, Olayiwola JO, Murray LB, Vinson BT, Chrisey DB, Lord CJ, Jackson JG. J Cell Biol. 2019 Sep 17.
Breast Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
James Jackson (Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans)
NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Tumor cells thrive by exploiting the willingness of normal cells in their neighborhood to act as accomplices. One of their sneakier stunts involves tricking the body into helping them form new blood vessels. This growth-enabling process of sprouting new blood vessels, called tumor angiogenesis, remains a vital area of cancer research and continues to yield important clues into how to beat this deadly disease.
The two-panel image above shows one such promising lead from recent lab studies with endothelial cells, specialized cells that line the inside of all blood vessels. In tumors, endothelial cells are induced to issue non-stop SOS signals that falsely alert the body to dispatch needed materials to rescue these cells. The endothelial cells then use the help to replicate and sprout new blood vessels.
The left panel demonstrates the basics of this growth process under normal conditions. Endothelial cells (red and blue) were cultured under special conditions that help them grow in the lab. When given the right cues, those cells sprout spiky extensions to form new vessels.
But in the right panel, the cells can’t sprout. The reason is because the cells are bathed in a molecule called miR-30c, which isn’t visible in the photo. These specialized microRNA molecules—and humans make a few thousand different versions of them—control protein production by binding to and disabling longer RNA templates, called messenger RNA.
This new anti-angiogenic lead, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, comes from a research team led by Andrew Dudley, University of Virginia Medical School, Charlottesville . The team made its discovery while studying a protein called TGF-beta that tumors like to exploit to fuel their growth.
Their studies in mice showed that loss of TGF-beta signals in endothelial cells blocked the growth of new blood vessels and thus tumors. Further study showed that those effects were due in part to elevated levels of miR-30c. The two interact in endothelial cells as part of a previously unrecognized signaling pathway that coordinates the growth of new blood vessels in tumors.
Dudley’s team went on to show that levels of miR-30c vary widely amongst endothelial cells, even when those cells come from the very same tumor. Cells rich in miR-30c struggled to sprout new vessels, while those with less of this microRNA grew new vessels with ease.
Intriguingly, they found that levels of this microRNA also predicted the outcomes for patients with breast cancer. Those whose cancers had high levels of the vessel-stunting miR-30c fared better than those with lower miR-30c levels. While more research is needed, it does offer a potentially promising new lead in the fight against cancer.
 Endothelial miR-30c suppresses tumor growth via inhibition of TGF-β-induced Serpine1. McCann JV, Xiao L, Kim DJ, Khan OF, Kowalski PS, Anderson DG, Pecot CV, Azam SH, Parker JS, Tsai YS, Wolberg AS, Turner SD, Tatsumi K, Mackman N, Dudley AC. J Clin Invest. 2019 Mar 11;130:1654-1670.
Angiogenesis Inhibitors (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Dudley Lab (University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville)
NIH Support: National Cancer Institute; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Gratifying progress has been made recently in an emerging area of cancer medicine called precision oncology. It’s a bold attempt to target treatment to the very genes and molecules driving a cancer, aiming to slow or even halt its growth. But there’s always more to learn. Now comes evidence that, while a single well-matched drug might be good, a tailored combination of drugs that attack a cancer in multiple ways at once might be even better.
The findings come from the I-PREDICT clinical trial, which treated people with advanced cancer who hadn’t benefited from previous therapy . The NIH-funded team found that analyzing a tumor’s unique genetic and molecular profile provided enough information to recommend individualized combination therapies to patients. What’s more, patients who followed their individualized combination therapies most closely lived longer, with longer periods of progression-free disease, than did those who took fewer of the recommended drugs.
In most previous clinical trials of precision oncology, researchers have relied on a tumor’s unique profile to identify a single, well-matched drug to treat each patient. But cancer is complex, and, just as with certain infectious diseases, tumors commonly develop resistance to a single drug.
In the trial reported in Nature Medicine, researchers led by Razelle Kurzrock and Jason Sicklick, University of California, San Diego, wondered if they could improve treatment responses by tailoring combinations of cancer drugs to target as many molecular and genetic changes in a person’s cancer as possible.
To test the potential for this strategy to work, the researchers enrolled 83 people with various cancers that had advanced despite previous treatment. Tumor tissue from each patient was run through a comprehensive battery of tests, and researchers sequenced hundreds of genes to look for telltale alterations in their DNA.
They also looked for evidence that a cancer had defects affecting the DNA “mismatch repair” pathway, which causes some tumors to generate larger numbers of mutations than others. Mismatch repair defects have been shown to predict better responses to immunotherapies, which are designed to harness the immune system against cancer .
With all the data in hand, a special panel of oncologists, pharmacologists, cancer biologists, geneticists, surgeons, radiologists, pathologists, and bioinformatics experts consulted to arrive at the right customized combination of drugs for each patient.
The panel’s findings were presented to the health care team working with each patient. The physician for each patient then had the final decision on whether to recommend the treatment regimen, balancing the panel’s suggestions with other real-world factors, such as a patient’s insurance coverage, availability of drugs, and his or her treatment preference.
Ten patients decided to stick with unmatched treatment. But 73 participants received a customized combination therapy. As no two molecular profiles were identical, the customized treatment regimens varied from person to person.
Many people received designer drugs targeting particular genetic alterations. Some also received checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapies to unleash the immune system against cancer. Four people also were treated with hormone therapies in combination with molecularly targeted drugs. In all, most regimens combined two to five drugs to target each cancer profile.
Participants were followed until their cancer progressed, they could no longer take treatment, or they died. For each person, the researchers calculated a “matching score,” roughly defined as the number of molecular alterations matched to administered drug(s), with some further calculations.
The evidence showed that those with matching scores greater than 50 percent, meaning more than half of a tumor’s identified aberrations had been targeted, were more likely to have stopped the progression of their cancers. Importantly, half of patients with the higher matching scores had prolonged stable disease (six months or longer) or a complete or partial remission. Similar results were attained in only 22 percent of those with low or no matching scores.
These encouraging results suggest that customized combinations of targeted treatments will help to advance precision oncology. However, there are still many challenges. For example, many of the combinations used in the study have not yet been safety tested. The researchers managed the potential risk of toxicities by starting patients on an initial low dose and having their physicians follow them closely while the dose was increased to a level well-tolerated by each individual patient.
And indeed, they saw no evidence that those receiving a greater proportion of “matched” drugs (i.e. those with a higher matching score) were more likely to experience adverse effects than those who took fewer drugs. So, that’s an encouraging sign.
The researchers are now enrolling patients in a new version of the I-PREDICT trial. Unlike the initial plan, patients are now being enrolled prior to receiving any treatment for a recently diagnosed aggressive, often-lethal form of cancer. The hope is that treating patients with well-matched, multi-drug treatment combinations early will yield even better results than waiting until standard treatment has failed. If correct, it would mark significant progress in building the future of precision oncology.
 Molecular profiling of cancer patients enables personalized combination therapy: the I-PREDICT study. Sicklick JK, Kato S, Okamura R, Schwaederle M, Hahn ME, Williams CB, De P, Krie A, Piccioni DE, Miller VA, Ross JS, Benson A, Webster J, Stephens PJ, Lee JJ, Fanta PT, Lippman SM, Leyland-Jones B, Kurzrock R. Nat Med. 2019 Apr 22.
Precision Medicine in Cancer Treatment (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Razelle Kurzrock (University of California, San Diego)
Jason Sicklick (University of California, San Diego)
NIH Support: National Cancer Institute