Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
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 . 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.
 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.
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
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Over the past few years, my blog has highlighted a wide range of Creative Minds from across biomedical research. But creative minds come in many forms, and, for a change of pace, I’d like to kick back this August and highlight some talented scientists who are also doing amazing things in the arts, from abstract painting to salsa dancing to rock’n’roll.
My first post introduces you to Dr. Pardis Sabeti, a computational geneticist at the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard, Cambridge, and one of Time Magazine’s 2014 People of the Year for her work to contain the last major Ebola outbreak in West Africa. When she’s not in the lab studying viruses, Sabeti is the hard-driving voice of the indie rock band Thousand Days that has been rocking Boston for more than a decade.
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
We live in a world energized by technological advances, from that new app on your smartphone to drones and self-driving cars. As you can see from this video, NIH-supported researchers are also major contributors, developing a wide range of amazing biomedical technologies that offer tremendous potential to improve our health.
Produced by the NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), this video starts by showcasing some cool fluorescent markers that are custom-designed to light up specific cells in the body. This technology is already helping surgeons see and remove tumor cells with greater precision in people with head and neck cancer . Further down the road, it might also be used to light up nerves, which can be very difficult to see—and spare—during operations for cancer and other conditions.
Other great things to come include:
- A wearable tattoo that detects alcohol levels in perspiration and wirelessly transmits the information to a smartphone.
- Flexible coils that produce high quality images during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) [2-3]. In the future, these individualized, screen-printed coils may improve the comfort and decrease the scan times of people undergoing MRI, especially infants and small children.
- A time-release capsule filled with a star-shaped polymer containing the anti-malarial drug ivermectin. The capsule slowly dissolves in the stomach over two weeks, with the goal of reducing the need for daily doses of ivermectin to prevent malaria infections in at-risk people .
- A new radiotracer to detect prostate cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. Early clinical trial results show the radiotracer, made up of carrier molecules bonded tightly to a radioactive atom, appears to be safe and effective .
- A new supercooling technique that promises to extend the time that organs donated for transplantation can remain viable outside the body [6-7]. For example, current technology can preserve donated livers outside the body for just 24 hours. In animal studies, this new technique quadruples that storage time to up to four days.
- A wearable skin patch with dissolvable microneedles capable of effectively delivering an influenza vaccine. This painless technology, which has produced promising early results in humans, may offer a simple, affordable alternative to needle-and-syringe immunization .
If you like what you see here, be sure to check out this previous NIH video that shows six more awesome biomedical technologies that your tax dollars are helping to create. So, let me extend a big thanks to you from those of us at NIH—and from all Americans who care about the future of their health—for your strong, continued support!
 Image-guided surgery in cancer: A strategy to reduce incidence of positive surgical margins. Wiley Interdiscip Rev Syst Biol Med. 2018 Feb 23.
 Screen-printed flexible MRI receive coils. Corea JR, Flynn AM, Lechêne B, Scott G, Reed GD, Shin PJ, Lustig M, Arias AC. Nat Commun. 2016 Mar 10;7:10839.
 Printed Receive Coils with High Acoustic Transparency for Magnetic Resonance Guided Focused Ultrasound. Corea J, Ye P, Seo D, Butts-Pauly K, Arias AC, Lustig M. Sci Rep. 2018 Feb 21;8(1):3392.
 Oral, ultra-long-lasting drug delivery: Application toward malaria elimination goals. Bellinger AM, Jafari M1, Grant TM, Zhang S, Slater HC, Wenger EA, Mo S, Lee YL, Mazdiyasni H, Kogan L, Barman R, Cleveland C, Booth L, Bensel T, Minahan D, Hurowitz HM, Tai T, Daily J, Nikolic B, Wood L, Eckhoff PA, Langer R, Traverso G. Sci Transl Med. 2016 Nov 16;8(365):365ra157.
 Clinical Translation of a Dual Integrin avb3– and Gastrin-Releasing Peptide Receptor–Targeting PET Radiotracer, 68Ga-BBN-RGD. Zhang J, Niu G, Lang L, Li F, Fan X, Yan X, Yao S, Yan W, Huo L, Chen L, Li Z, Zhu Z, Chen X. J Nucl Med. 2017 Feb;58(2):228-234.
 Supercooling enables long-term transplantation survival following 4 days of liver preservation. Berendsen TA, Bruinsma BG, Puts CF, Saeidi N, Usta OB, Uygun BE, Izamis ML, Toner M, Yarmush ML, Uygun K. Nat Med. 2014 Jul;20(7):790-793.
 The promise of organ and tissue preservation to transform medicine. Giwa S, Lewis JK, Alvarez L, Langer R, Roth AE, et a. Nat Biotechnol. 2017 Jun 7;35(6):530-542.
 The safety, immunogenicity, and acceptability of inactivated influenza vaccine delivered by microneedle patch (TIV-MNP 2015): a randomised, partly blinded, placebo-controlled, phase 1 trial. Rouphael NG, Paine M, Mosley R, Henry S, McAllister DV, Kalluri H, Pewin W, Frew PM, Yu T, Thornburg NJ, Kabbani S, Lai L, Vassilieva EV, Skountzou I, Compans RW, Mulligan MJ, Prausnitz MR; TIV-MNP 2015 Study Group.
Center for Wearable Sensors (University of California, San Diego)
Hyperpolarized MRI Technology Resource Center (University of California, San Francisco)
Center for Engineering in Medicine (Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston)
Center for Drug Design, Development and Delivery (Georgia Tech University, Atlanta)
NIH Support: National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
After surgically removing a tumor from a cancer patient, doctors like to send off some of the tissue for evaluation by a pathologist to get a better idea of whether the margins are cancer free and to guide further treatment decisions. But for technical reasons, completing the pathology report can take days, much to the frustration of patients and their families. Sometimes the results even require an additional surgical procedure.
Now, NIH-funded researchers have developed a groundbreaking new microscope to help perform the pathology in minutes, not days. How’s that possible? The device works like a scanner for tissues, using a thin sheet of light to capture a series of thin cross sections within a tumor specimen without having to section it with a knife, as is done with conventional pathology. The rapidly acquired 2D “optical sections” are processed by a computer that assembles them into a high-resolution 3D image for immediate analysis.