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lung cancer

Invasive lung cancer cells have distinct roles

When cancer cells split off from a tumor to seed deadly metastases, they are thought to travel as clusters or packs, a phenomenon known as collective invasion. The members of an invasive pack are not all alike, scientists at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University have learned.

Lung cancer cells making up an invasive pack have specialized roles as leaders and followers, which depend on each other for mobility and survival, the scientists report in Nature Communications.

The differences between leaders and followers — and their interdependence — could be keys for future treatments aimed at impairing or preventing cancer metastasis, says senior author Adam Marcus, PhD, associate professor of hematology and medical oncology at Winship Cancer Institute and Emory University School of Medicine.

“We’re finding that leader and follower cells have a symbiotic relationship and depend on each for survival and invasion,” he says. “Because metastatic invasion is the deadliest aspect of cancer, our goal is to find agents that disrupt that symbiotic relationship.”

Marcus and former graduate student Jessica Konen, PhD began by observing how a mass of lung cancer cells behaves when embedded in a 3-D protein gel. The cells generally stick together, but occasionally, a few cells extend out of the mass like tentacles, with the leader cell at the tip.

“We saw that when the leader cell became detached or died unexpectedly, the followers could no longer move,” says Konen, now a postdoctoral fellow at MD Anderson. “In one particular movie, we saw a leader cell come out away from the rest of the cells, and then seem to realize that nobody was following him. He actually did a 180, and went back to grab cells to bring with him.” Read more

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Outcomes in minimally invasive lung cancer surgery

To accompany our recent article on minimally invasive lung surgery for Winship magazine, please find a video featuring thoracic surgeon Manu Sancheti, MD.

As Sancheti explains, an advantage of minimally invasive approaches (sometimes called VATS for video-assisted thoracic surgery) is that surgeons do not open the patient’s chest, avoiding pain and potential complications and reducing length of stay in the hospital.

Among thoracic surgeons, the shift to this type of approach has taken place in the last few years — unevenly. Here’s a graph froLung surgery graphm one recent publication from Felix Fernandez, MD and colleagues, showing the percent of stage I lung cancer surgeries — compiled for individual surgeons in the Society of Thoracic Surgeons  — that are minimally invasive from 2011-2014. The average is about 63 percent, but it varies widely.

Attention medical journalists: if you want to ask questions like “Are these minimally invasive lung surgery approaches really good for long term patient outcomes?”, Fernandez is your guy. As the numbers come in, he is leading a team that is analyzing them. Read more

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Lung cancer cells go amoeboid

Cancer biologists Jessica Konen and Scott Wilkinson, in Adam Marcus’ lab, recently published a paper on the function of LKB1, a gene that is often mutated in lung cancer cells. [Number three behind K-ras and p53.]

Amoeboid

Mesenchymal shape is defined as having a length more than twice the width. Amoeboid looks more like the cell on the right: rounded up. Thanks to Jessica Konen for photo.

Konen and Marcus were featured in a prize-winning video that our team produced last year, which discusses how they developed a technique for isolating “leader cells” — lung cancer cells that migrate and invade more quickly — from a large group and studying those cells’ properties more intensively.

The Molecular Biology of the Cell paper covers a related topic: how LKB1 mutation affects cell shape. In particular, losing LKB1 converts lung cancer cells from a “mesenchymal” morphology to an “amoeboid” morphology.  Read more

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Device for viewing glowing brain tumors

People touched by a brain tumor — patients, their families or friends — may have heard of the drug Gliolan or 5-ALA, which is taken up preferentially by tumor cells and makes them fluorescent. The idea behind it is straightforward: if the neurosurgeon can see the tumor’s boundaries better during surgery, he or she can excise it more thoroughly and accurately.

5-ALA is approved for use in Europe but is still undergoing evaluation by the U.S. FDA. A team at Emory was the first to test this drug in the United States. [Note: A similar approach, based on protease activation of a fluorescent probe, was reported last week in Science Translational Medicine.]

ac-2015-034535_0001

A hand-held device to detect glowing brain tumors could allow closer access to the critical area than a surgical microscope

Biomedical engineer Shuming Nie and colleagues recently described their development of a hand-held spectroscopic device for viewing fluorescent brain tumors. This presents a contrast with the current tool, a surgical microscope — see figure.

Nie’s team tested their technology on specimens obtained from cancer surgeries. Their paper in Analytical Chemistry reports:

The results indicate that intraoperative spectroscopy is at least 3 orders of magnitude more sensitive than the current surgical microscopes, allowing ultrasensitive detection of as few as 1000 tumor cells. Read more

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Orange lichens are source for potential anticancer drug

An orange pigment found in lichens and rhubarb called parietin may have potential as an anti-cancer drug, scientists at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University have discovered.

The results were published in Nature Cell Biology on October 19.

Caloplaca_Fenwick

Parietin, shown to have anticancer activity in the laboratory, is a dominant pigment in Caloplaca lichens. Note: this study did not assess the effects of eating lichens or rhubarb. Photo courtesy of www.aphotofungi.com

Parietin, also known as physcion, could slow the growth of and kill human leukemia cells obtained directly from patients, without obvious toxicity to human blood cells, the authors report. The pigment could also inhibit the growth of human cancer cell lines, derived from lung and head and neck tumors, when grafted into mice.

A team of researchers led by Jing Chen, PhD, discovered the properties of parietin because they were looking for inhibitors for the metabolic enzyme 6PGD (6-phosphogluconate dehydrogenase). 6PGD is part of the pentose phosphate pathway, which supplies cellular building blocks for rapid growth. Researchers have already found 6PGD enzyme activity increased in several types of cancer cells.

“This is part of the Warburg effect, the distortion of cancer cells’ metabolism,” says Chen, professor of hematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine and Winship Cancer Institute. “We found that 6PGD is an important metabolic branch point in several types of cancer cells.” Read more

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Divide and conquer vs lung cancer

Doctors are using a “divide and conquer” strategy against lung cancer, and in some corners of the battlefield, it’s working. A few mutations – genetic alterations in the tumor that don’t come from the patient’s normal cells — have been found for which drugs are effective in pushing back against the cancer.

However, most lung tumors do not have one of these mutations, and response rates to conventional chemotherapy in patients with advanced lung cancer are poor. Generally, only around 20 percent of patients show a clinical response, in that the cancer retreats noticeably for some time.

Johann Brandes and colleagues at Winship Cancer Institute have been looking for biomarkers that can predict whether an advanced lung tumor is going to respond to one of the most common chemotherapy drug combinations, carboplatin and taxol.

“The availability of a predictive test is desirable since it would allow patients who are unlikely to benefit from this treatment combination to be spared from side effects and to be selected for other, possibly more effective treatments,” Brandes says.

Brandes’ team’s data comes from looking at patients with advanced lung cancer at the Atlanta VAMC from 1999 to 2010. In a 2013 paper in Clinical Cancer Research, the team looked at a protein called CHFR. It controls whether cells can reign in their cycles of cell division while being bombarded with chemotherapy.

In this group being treated with carboplatin and taxol, patients who had tumors that measured low in this protein lived almost four months longer, on average, than those who had tumors that were high (9.9 vs 6.2 months).

His team takes a similar approach in a new paper published in PLOS One. Postdoc Seth Brodie is the first author of the PLOS One paper; he is also co-first author of the CHFR paper along with Rathi Pillai. Read more

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Pilot human trial for image-guided cancer surgery tool

The Spectropen, a hand-held device developed by Emory and Georgia Tech scientists, was designed to help surgeons see the margins of tumors during surgery.

Some of the first results from procedures undertaken with the aid of the Spectropen in human cancer patients were recently published by the journal PLOS One. A related paper discussing image-guided removal of pulmonary nodules was just published in Annals of Thoracic Surgery.

To test the Spectropen, biomedical engineer Shuming Nie and his colleagues have been collaborating with thoracic surgeon Sunil Singhal at the University of Pennsylvania.

As described in the PLOS One paper, five patients with cancer in their lungs or chest participated in a pilot study at Penn. They received an injection of the fluorescent dye indocyanine green (ICG) before surgery.

ICG is already FDA-approved for in vivo diagnostics and now used to assess cardiac and liver function. ICG accumulates in tumors more than normal tissue because tumors have leaky blood vessels and membranes. The Spectropen shines light close to the infrared range on the tumor, causing it to glow because of the fluorescent dye.

[This technique resembles the 5-aminolevulinic acid imaging technique for brain tumor surgery being tested by Costas Hadjipanayis, described in Emory Medicine.]

In one case from the PLOS One article, the imaging procedure had some tangible benefits, allowing the surgeons to detect the spread of cancerous cells when other modes of imaging did not. Read more

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Fine tuning an old-school chemotherapy drug

First approved by the FDA in the 1970s, the chemotherapy drug cisplatin and its relative carboplatin remain mainstays of treatment for lung, head and neck, testicular and ovarian cancer. However, cisplatin’s use is limited by its toxicity to the kidneys, ears and sensory nerves.

Paul Doetsch’s lab at Winship Cancer Institute has made some surprising discoveries about how cisplatin kills cells. By combining cisplatin with drugs that force cells to rely more on mitochondria, it may be possible to target it more specifically to cancer cells and/or reduce its toxicity.

Cisplatin emerged from a serendipitous discovery in the 1960s by a biophysicist examining the effects of electrical current on bacterial cell division. It wasn’t the current that stopped the bacteria from dividing – it was the platinum in the electrodes. According to Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book The Emperor of All Maladies, cisplatin became known as “cisflatten” in the 1970s and 1980s because of its nausea-inducing side effects.

Cisplatin is an old-school chemotherapy drug, in the sense that it’s a DNA-damaging agent with a simple structure. It doesn’t target cancer cells in some special way, it just grabs DNA with its metallic arms and holds on, forming crosslinks between DNA strands.

But how cisplatin kills cells is more complicated. Along with the direct effects of DNA damage, cisplatin unleashes a storm of reactive oxygen species.

“We wanted to know whether the reactive oxygen species induced by cisplatin had a driving role in cell death or was more of a byproduct,” says postdoc Rossella Marullo, who is the first author of a recent paper with Doestch in PLOS One.

One possible analogy: after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the fires were even more destructive than the initial shaking. When asked whether to think of the reactive oxygen species production triggered by cisplatin in the same way as the fires, Doetsch and Marullo say they wouldn’t go that far.

Still, they have uncovered a critical role for mitochondria, cells’ mini-power plants, in cisplatin cell toxicity. The researchers found that mitochondria are the source of cisplatin-induced reactive oxygen species in lung cancer cells. Cancer cell lines that lack functional mitochondria* are less sensitive to cisplatin, and cisplatin’s damage to the mitochondria may be even more important than the damage to DNA in the nucleus, the authors write. However, mitochondrial damage is not important for cisplatin’s less potent [but less toxic] cousin carboplatin.

Cancer cells tend to have a warped metabolism that makes them turn off their mitochondria. This is part of the “Warburg effect” (experts in this area: Winship’s Jing Chen and Malathy Shanmugam). Cancer cells have an increased uptake of sugar, but don’t break it down completely, and use the byproducts as building materials.

What if we could force cancer cells to rely on their mitochondria again, and at the same time, by giving them cisplatin, make that painful for them? This would make cisplatin even more toxic to cancer cells in particular.

The drug DCA (dichloroacetate), which can stimulate cancer cells to use their mitochondria, can also increase the toxicity of cisplatin, at least in cancer cell lines in the laboratory, Marullo and her colleagues show.

Doetsch and radiation oncologist Jonathan Beitler are in the process of planning a clinical trial combining DCA with cisplatin for HPV (human papillomavirus)-positive head and neck cancer. The trial would test whether it might be possible to use a lower dose of cisplatin, reducing toxicity, by combining it with DCA.

“We’ve relied on cisplatin’s efficacy for decades, without fully understanding the mechanism,” Beitler says. “With this new knowledge, it may be possible to manipulate cisplatin’s action so it is more effective and less toxic.”

The applicability of cisplatin and mitochondrial tuning may depend both on cancer cell type and metabolic state, Doetsch adds.

*Cell lines that lack mitochondrial DNA can be obtained by “pickling” them in ethidium bromide, a DNA intercalation agent.

 

 

 

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Making “death receptor” anticancer drugs live up to their name

Cancer cells have an array of built-in self-destruct buttons called death receptors. A drug that targets death receptors sounds like a promising concept, and death receptor-targeting drugs have been under development by several biotech companies. Unfortunately, so far results in clinical trials have been disappointing, because cancer cells appear to develop resistance pathways.

Death receptor-targeting drugs under development include: drozitumab, mapatumumab, lexatumumab, AMG655, dulanermin.

Winship Cancer Institute researcher Shi-Yong Sun, PhD and colleagues have a paper in Journal of Biological Chemistry that may help pick the tumors that are most likely to be vulnerable to death receptor-targeting drugs. This could help clinical researchers identify potential successes ahead of time and maximize chances of a good response for patients.

Postdoctoral fellow Youtake Oh is the first author. Winship deputy director Fadlo Khuri, MD and Taofeek Owonikoko, MD, PhD, co-chair of Winship’s clinical and translational research committee, are co-authors. Khuri’s 2010 presentation on death receptor drugs and lung cancer is available here (PDF).

Sun’s team shows that mutations in the cancer-driving genes Ras and B-Raf both induce cancer cells to make more of one of the death receptors (death receptor 5). In addition, they show that cancer cells with mutations in Ras or B-Raf tend to be more vulnerable to drugs that target death receptor 5.

Shi-Yong Sun, PhD

These mutations are known to be more common in some types of cancer. For example, roughly half of melanomas have mutations in B-Raf. Vemurafenib, a drug that inhibits mutated B-Raf, was approved in August 2011 for the treatment of melanoma. K-ras mutations are similarly abundant in lung cancer.

The selection and targeting of tumors via their specific mutations is a growing trend. Sun says lung, colon and pancreatic cancer are all cancer types where Ras and Raf mutations are common enough to become useful biomarkers. In lung cancer, Sun’s team’s results could be especially welcome news because, as a 2009 review concluded:

Recent studies indicate that patients with mutant KRAS tumors fail to benefit from adjuvant chemotherapy, and their disease does not respond to EGFR inhibitors. There is a dire need for therapies specifically for patients with KRAS mutant NSCLC.

 

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What cancer researchers can learn from fruit fly genetics

What can scientists studying cancer biology learn from fruit flies?

Quite a lot, it turns out.  At a time when large projects such as the Cancer Genome Atlas seek to define the changes in DNA that drive cancer formation, it is helpful to have the insight gained from other arenas, such as fruit flies, to make sense of the mountains of data.

Drosophila melanogaster has been an important model organism for genetics because the flies are easy to care for, reproduce rapidly, and have an easily manipulated genome. This NCI newsletter article describes how some investigators have used Drosophila to find genes involved in metastasis.

Emory cell biologist Ken Moberg says that he and postdoctoral fellow Melissa Gilbert crafted a Drosophila-based strategy to identify growth-regulating genes that previous researchers may have missed. Their approach allowed them to begin defining the function of a gene that is often mutated in lung cancer. The results are published online in Developmental Cell.

Part of the developing fly larva, stained with an antibody against Myopic. Groups of cells lacking Myopic, which lack green color, tend to divide more rapidly.

Moberg writes:

Many screens have been carried out in flies looking for single gene lesions that drive tissue overgrowth. But a fundamental lesson from years of cancer research is that many, and perhaps most, cancer-causing mutations also drive compensatory apoptosis, and blocking this apoptosis is absolutely required for cancer outgrowth.

We reasoned that this class of ‘conditional’ growth suppressor genes had been missed in prior screens, so we designed an approach to look for them. The basic pathways of apoptosis are fairly well conserved in flies, so it’s fairly straight forward to do this.

Explanatory note: apoptosis is basically a form of cellular suicide, which can arise when signals within the cell clash; one set of proteins says “grow, grow” and another says “brake, brake,” with deadly results.

Gilbert identified the fruit fly gene Myopic as one of these conditional growth regulators. She used a system where mutations in Myopic drive some of the cells in the fly’s developing eye to grow out more – but only when apoptosis is disabled.

Gilbert showed that Myopic is part of a group of genes in flies, making up the Hippo pathway, which regulates how large a developing organ will become. This pathway was largely defined in flies, then tested in humans, Moberg says. The functions of the genes in this pathway have been maintained so faithfully that in some cases, the human versions can substitute for the fly versions.

Myopic’s ortholog (ie different species, similar sequence and function) is the gene His-domain protein tyrosine phosphatase, or HD-PTP for short. This gene is located on part of the human genome that is deleted in more than 90 percent of both small cell and non-small cell lung cancers, and is also deleted in renal cancer cells.

How HD-PTP, when it is intact, controls the growth of cells in the human lung or kidney is not known. Gilbert and Moberg’s findings suggest that HD-PTP may function through a mechanism that is similar to Myopic’s functions in the fly.

Besides clarifying what Myopic does in the fly, their paper essentially creates a map for scientists studying HD-PTP’s involvement in lung cancer, for example, to probe and validate.

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