Tag Archives: cancer cells

The Hits Just Keep on Coming


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I have a hiking companion who loves math, computers, and to a large extent, eugenics. He posits that we will eventually understand the human genome so well that we will be able to make all humans “smart” or “better” through genetic engineering. I argue back endlessly, with little success, that his definition of “smart” and “better” may not be shared  by everyone (he counters that these definitions will be left to the parents…) and that there will be unintended consequences of diving into our DNA with CRISPR/Cas9 technology.

The wonderful complexity of humankind is, of course, reflected in every single cell in our bodies and in all of our cancer cells as well. The debate over the number of synapses (or permutations) in our brains versus atoms (or stars etc.) in the observable universe is well beyond my comprehension. Unfortunately the “much simpler” question of how many things go wrong in cancer cells is also mind boggling. Hence, the phenomenal work of one of the West Coast Dream Team’s recent publications is not surprising. A reductionist view is shown in this diagram from their paper published last month:

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The scientific team, using funds from PCF, SU2C, and Movember (among others), did a whole genome analysis of metastatic tumor specimens from 101 men with castration resistant (hormone insensitive) prostate cancer. There is an excellent report on this work from the UCSF News Center here. Lest you believe that the results have resulted in an “aha moment” that will lead to “A prostate cancer cure”, you might do as I had to do and Google the word I had not heard of in the above figure, “chromothripsis“. Rather, the research leads to some very important insights that will doubtless contribute towards more effective therapy for 1000’s of patients eventually. By looking at the structural variants in the DNA that occurs outside of expressed genes, a much more complex picture of what drives castration resistant prostate cancer (CRPC) becomes evident. For example the androgen receptor (AR) is over-expressed in the majority of metastases and this study found a region of the “junk DNA” (non-coding for genes) that lies 66.94 million base pairs upstream of the AR that was amplified in 81% of the cases. This was 11% more common than the amplification of AR itself – an indication of how important the DNA controlling a gene like AR is, compared to the gene itself. So much for calling the DNA that doesn’t code for a protein “junk”!

A second example is the insight into patients who have alterations in a gene called CDK12 that may render them more sensitive to one of the “hottest” areas of cancer research, the use of checkpoint inhibitors of the PD-1 pathway I described in my last post.  This abnormality results in the cancer cells having an increased number of “neoantigens” (targets) for the immune system to attack as shown in this illustration from another recent exceptional paper.

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The ongoing research from the many scientific teams focused on prostate cancer is awe-inspiring when you consider the complexities involved in the two figures in this post alone. Even getting a complete picture from a single patient is impossible, given the genetic instability and the variable mutations found in different metastases. Remember, this team looked at the DNA from only one (or a few) of the many metastatic sites found in each patient. Other studies have shown lots of different mutations depending on which site is evaluated as I reviewed here.  In spite of all of this complexity, the ability to at least begin to understand what is going on “underneath the hood” is the way forward, and just as we can recognize Fords vs Chevys vs Toyotas, “brands” that emerge from such studies will lead to treatments that are more appropriate for certain classes of patients. As we have known for a very long time, the most common feature is the “gasoline” of testosterone, and how it fuels the amplified AR has remained an effective target for the newer drugs like abiraterone, enzalutamide, and apalutamide. Perhaps studies such as this one will lead to a way of kinking the hose upstream of the gasoline nozzle, or throwing sand (immunotherapy) into the engine itself. But… to admit that we will never understand it all (or design the “perfect human”) still seems an appropriate expression of humility to me.

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Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues

The billionaire cancer researcher


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Several patients/friends told me this week about the 60 Minutes piece highlighting the ongoing efforts of Patrick Soon-Shiong, a surgeon who was involved in the development of abraxane and has become worth $11B as a result. So I did my duty and watched on the Internet tonight and will share my thoughts with you loyal followers. Let it first be said that the optimism in this video is compelling, and for the most part based on science that has been going on for the past decade or so in labs all over the country. The 60 Minutes team working with Dr. Soon-Shiong highlighted in a visually compelling, and mostly understandable way, the progress that is being made using the latest technology and understanding of cancer biology. I will highlight this as follows: 1) massive computer technology and sequencing advances allow “all” of the mutations that characterize a cancer cell to be displayed. 2) Drug development to attack vulnerable biologic pathways within cancer cells is accelerating. 3) The possibility of finding the gene mutations driving these cells by looking at circulating tumor cells portends a [mostly] promising way of sampling what is going on within a patient, yet not having to biopsy the tumors. 4) The recent breakthroughs in enhancing immune responses to tumors by shutting down the innate immune checkpoint controls appears to offer great promise for “wiping out” residual/resistant tumor cells.

With that summary, let me urge anyone who watches/watched the video to pay close attention to my good friend, Derek Raghavan’s commentary. Derek is one of the most insightful and honest translational medical scientists I know. In essence, he points out that although Dr Soon-Shhiong is applying an “all of the above” approach to the attack on cancer, there will still be enormous amounts of work to be done and thereby hints at the problem I have  with the video – overselling hype/hope is a specialty of the media. Presenting the single patient with pancreatic cancer who is doing well is an example of this focus on the “sizzle and not the steak” approach. I take nothing away from what a billion dollars can do to pull the existing technologies together and applaud Dr. Soon-Shiong’s efforts. As a matter of fact, one of the techniques he touches on, using low continuous doses of chemotherapy, is something we may have been the first to try in prostate cancer several years ago and published here.

So what are the cautionary issues? 1) The sheer number of mutations found in most cancers (and perhaps especially prostate cancer where the term “shredding of the genome” has been used, make attacking ALL of the pathways at once nearly impossible.  If even one cell can further mutate in the face of having, say 6 or 7 drugs being given to shut down the mutations, it will survive to become the dominant and lethal metastatic problem. This is layered onto the challenge of using “all 6 drugs” together, which will more than likely compound the toxicities to the host when compared to using one of them at the optimal dose. 2) Tumor heterogeneity. In an incredible tour-de-force, a team of scientists at the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute  did whole genome analysis of the original kidney cancer in four patients as well as in their metastases. The graphic of how the research was done is shown here:

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Each spot in the original tumor as well as each metastasis had a somewhat unique set of mutations. Thus “personalized medicine”, the favorite buzzword of the moment in medicine, has a huge challenge in cancer, since there might be different combinations of drugs required for each metastatic site in some patients. The same might apply even for the evaluation of individual circulating tumor cells of course, which is now possible. A cell coming into the research syringe at one time might reflect a tumor deposit in one area, while the next cell isolated could be coming from somewhere else. 3) The excitement over using the most clever of the immune approaches, including the checkpoint inhibitors and the CART cell approach have significant challenges, either because of unleashing autoimmunity, or the very high costs of manipulating each individual patient’s T-cells in order to come up with the autologous cancer-fighting cell treatment.

So, here’s to the optimism and billionaire strategies, and we all hope it moves forward quickly and successfully. And here’s to 60 Minutes for highlighting the amazing biology and progress that is being made. Hope is one of the keystones of human progress, whether it is landing on Mars or repairing a broken relationship. Love and hope are what make life worth living. May your holiday celebrations be filled with both!

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