Tag Archives: cancer cells

Ho, Ho, Hox


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Fruit flies are a fascinating scientific resource to consider if you can get beyond your annoyance when they appear in one of those lovely boxes of ripe fruit you receive from a relative this time of year. (Just be thankful it wasn’t fruitCAKE!). For some great reading on the topic, I highly recommend a book, “Time, Love, and Memory“, the story of Seymour Benzer and how his graduate students figured out how different genes are involved in these creatures’ sense of time, or how they do their mating dance or remember whether they shouldn’t put their little leg down into a beaker and get a shock.

As with their behavior, there are wonderfully complex genes that also control how they develop from a single fertilized egg into an adult fly. These are called homeobox or “Hox” genes and it turns out their analogues are conserved throughout the animal kingdom. In this nice review of their functions, the following picture shows how the gene family controls development in the anterior – posterior development of the fly AND the mouse embryo.

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Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.39.27 PMWhen things go wrong in the fruit fly (Drosophila), you can get a fascinating mutation that makes the fly look like this, with legs appearing where there should be antennae. In humans, analogous mutations can result in having extra fingers or malformations. You can read in more depth about how the Hox (a subset of the master homeotic regulator) genes are regulated at the Kahn academy in this article.

OK, you say, but what could this possibly have to do with prostate cancer? Ah, that’s what I find fascinating. Cancer is a superb example of dysregulation of the genetic programs that make cells behave. By the time you get to an animal developing a prostate gland, there are countless regulatory genes that must each turn on or off at the right time in embryogenesis. And just as “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny“, oncology recapitulates ontogeny. One of these homeobox genes, HOXB13 was discovered to be mutated in studies of families with hereditary risk for prostate cancer by Johns Hopkins investigators several years ago. This gene interacts with the androgen receptor, so it makes some sense that the prostate gland would be affected by mutations. Further studies of families with this mutation indicate that if you inherit one copy of the G48E mutation, your risk of developing prostate cancer is 2.6 fold increased.

Whereas testing for such genetic mutations (and many others) used to be the provenance  of research labs, we are entering a time in medicine when genetic testing is becoming “mandatory” for best practice care. The following criteria are now used to help discern who might benefit from such testing:

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This table comes from a company, Myriad, that is now advertising for its own cancer risk gene panel, but there are several such companies and panels of genes. Although we (I) still don’t send off a genetic panel test to Myriad, Foundation Medicine, Invitae or the other companies in all patients, we are rapidly approaching the time when that will be standard. The challenges (as outlined in this article) are which genes should be tested, and what to do with the results. Some mutations such as those involving DNA damage repair, are already recognized as useful in directing therapy. For now, it is a topic best discussed with a genetics counsellor, and I fear, even more importantly one with an interest in prostate cancer if you can find one. Most of us physicians are struggling to keep up with which panel (if any) to order and when to order it.

So just remember when you see that little fly emerge from your fruit box this season, he/she/it has made immeasurable contributions to cancer research, and be thankful for all the science that is helping us to understand our amazing world.

 

 

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Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Prostate cancer therapy, Targeted treatment

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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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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