Posted on by Douglas M. Sheeley, Sc.D., NIH Common Fund
With just a blood sample from a patient, a promising technology has the potential to accurately diagnose non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), the most-common form of the disease, more than 90 percent of the time. The same technology can even predict from the same blood sample whether a patient will respond well to a targeted immunotherapy treatment.
This work is a good example of research supported by the NIH Common Fund. Many Common Fund programs support development of new tools that catalyze research across the full spectrum of biomedical science without focusing on a single disease or organ system.
The emerging NSCLC prediction technology was developed as part of our Extracellular RNA Communication Program. The program develops technologies to understand RNA circulating in the body, known as extracellular RNA (exRNA). These molecules can be easily accessed in bodily fluids such as blood, urine, and saliva, and they have enormous potential as biomarkers to better understand cancer and other diseases.
When the body’s immune system detects a developing tumor, it activates various immune cells that work together to kill the suspicious cells. But many tumors have found a way to evade the immune system by producing a protein called PD-L1.
Displayed on the surface of a cancer cell, PD-L1 can bind to a protein found on immune cells with the similar designation of PD-1. The binding of the two proteins keeps immune cells from killing tumor cells. One type of immunotherapy interferes with this binding process and can restore the natural ability of the immune system to kill the tumor cells.
However, tumors differ from person to person, and this form of cancer immunotherapy doesn’t work for everyone. People with higher levels of PD-L1 in their tumors generally have better response rates to immunotherapy, and that’s why oncologists test for the protein before attempting the treatment.
Because cancer cells within a tumor can vary greatly, a single biopsy taken at a single site in the tumor may miss cells with PD-L1. In fact, current prediction technologies using tissue biopsies correctly predict just 20 – 40 percent of NSCLC patients who will respond well to immunotherapy. This means some people receive immunotherapy who shouldn’t, while others don’t get it who might benefit.
To improve these predictions, a research team led by Eduardo Reátegui, The Ohio State University, Columbus, engineered a new technology to measure exRNA and proteins found within and on the surface of extracellular vesicles (EVs) . EVs are tiny molecular containers released by cells. They carry RNA and proteins (including PD-L1) throughout the body and are known to play a role in communication between cells.
As the illustration above shows, EVs can be shed from tumors and then circulate in the bloodstream. That means their characteristics and internal cargo, including exRNA, can provide insight into the features of a tumor. But collecting EVs, breaking them open, and pooling their contents for assessment means that molecules occurring in small quantities (like PD-L1) can get lost in the mix. It also exposes delicate exRNA molecules to potential breakdown outside the protective EV.
The new technology solves these problems. It sorts and isolates individual EVs and measures both PD-1 and PD-L1 proteins, as well as exRNA that contains their genetic codes. This provides a more comprehensive picture of PD-L1 production within the tumor compared to a single biopsy sample. But also, measuring surface proteins and the contents of individual EVs makes this technique exquisitely sensitive.
By measuring proteins and the exRNA cargo from individual EVs, Reátegui and team found that the technology correctly predicted whether a patient had NSCLC 93.2 percent of the time. It also predicted immunotherapy response with an accuracy of 72.2 percent, far exceeding the current gold standard method.
The researchers are working on scaling up the technology, which would increase precision and allow for more simultaneous measurements. They are also working with the James Comprehensive Cancer Center at The Ohio State University to expand their testing. That includes validating the technology using banked clinical samples of blood and other bodily fluids from large groups of cancer patients. With continued development, this new technology could improve NSCLC treatment while, critically, lowering its cost.
The real power of the technology, though, lies in its flexibility. Its components can be swapped out to recognize any number of marker molecules for other diseases and conditions. That includes other cancers, neurodegenerative diseases, traumatic brain injury, viral diseases, and cardiovascular diseases. This broad applicability is an example of how Common Fund investments catalyze advances across the research spectrum that will help many people now and in the future.
 An immunogold single extracellular vesicular RNA and protein (AuSERP) biochip to predict responses to immunotherapy in non-small cell lung cancer patients. Nguyen LTH, Zhang J, Rima XY, Wang X, Kwak KJ, Okimoto T, Amann J, Yoon MJ, Shukuya T, Chiang CL, Walters N, Ma Y, Belcher D, Li H, Palmer AF, Carbone DP, Lee LJ, Reátegui E. J Extracell Vesicles. 11(9):e12258. doi: 10.1002/jev2.12258.
Video: Unlocking the Mysteries of Extracellular RNA Communication (Common Fund)
Extracellular RNA Communication Program (ERCC) (Common Fund)
Upcoming Meeting: ERCC19 Research Meeting (May 1-2, 2023)
Eduardo Reátegui Group for Bioengineering Research (The Ohio State University College of Engineering, Columbus)
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes, Centers, and Offices to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 27th in the series of NIH guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
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
There’s been tremendous excitement in the cancer community recently about the life-saving potential of immunotherapy. In this treatment strategy, a patient’s own immune system is enlisted to control and, in some cases, even cure the cancer. But despite many dramatic stories of response, immunotherapy doesn’t work for everyone. A major challenge has been figuring out how to identify with greater precision which patients are most likely to benefit from this new approach, and how to use that information to develop strategies to expand immunotherapy’s potential.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about early progress on this front, highlighting a small study in which NIH-funded researchers were able to predict which people with colorectal and other types of cancer would benefit from an immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab (Keytruda®). The key seemed to be that tumors with defects affecting the “mismatch repair” pathway were more likely to benefit. Mismatch repair is involved in fixing small glitches that occur when DNA is copied during cell division. If a tumor is deficient in mismatch repair, it contains many more DNA mutations than other tumors—and, as it turns out, immunotherapy appears to be most effective against tumors with many mutations.
Now, I’m pleased to report more promising news from that clinical trial of pembrolizumab, which was expanded to include 86 adults with 12 different types of mismatch repair-deficient cancers that had been previously treated with at least one type of standard therapy . After a year of biweekly infusions, more than half of the patients had their tumors shrink by at least 30 percent—and, even better, 18 had their tumors completely disappear!