The 2013 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology

2013 Nobel Prize artOn October 7, 2013, in Stockholm, Sweden, the Nobel Committee announced the winners of the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology – two Americans and one German, all now located at institutions in the US. The discovery for which these three investigators share the prize involves their work over three decades studying the transport, packaging and trafficking of cellular proteins.

All cells must communicate and maintain their identity. To do so cells have developed intricate systems whereby neurotransmitters, proteins, hormones, and other species are encapsulated in small vesicles. These vesicles may be utilized to extrude materials into the extracellular domain or may store materials within the cell for later use. Working in model systems including yeast cells, these investigators showed the intricacy of cellular physiology associated with micro-vesicular function.

What makes these investigators’ work so interesting is that it is principally the study of cellular physiology, or what we call cell biology. While many breakthroughs and observations today reflect discoveries at the level of DNA, RNA and the genome, these investigators have pioneered protein kinetics and physiology. What is so exciting about this Nobel Prize is that it returns attention to the intricacies of cellular function at the level of phenotype. Protein biology represents the final common pathway from blueprint (DNA) to function. While genes that are detected within the nucleus (the purview of genomic analyses and many recent Nobel prizes) may or may not ultimately be expressed, depending upon splice variants, DNA methylation, histone acetylation, small interfering RNAs and non-coding DNAs among other phenomena, functional proteins are the active end-product and do very much exist.

We now recognize that cellular signaling, misfolded protein response, autophagy and apoptotic responses are tightly bound together. Among the most toxic phenomena for a cell is the misfolded protein signal, a signal that occurs far from the gene. This represents the target of the newest classes of drugs known as proteasome inhibitors and heat shock protein inhibitors, which function within the cytoplasm, not the nucleus.

It is exciting to imagine a day when physiologist, biochemist, enzymologist, physical chemist, and protein chemist regain their position as leaders in cancer research.

N.B: It should not go unmentioned that the EVA-PCD® assay offered by Rational Therapeutics is based on cellular function.

Cancer as a Metabolic Disorder

I received an inquiry via Twitter “Has anyone thought about using a sugar medium (similar to PET scans) to deliver chemo drugs?”

Although no one would use PET scans nor the PET reagents as therapy, the question is actually profound. There is a growing recognition that cancer is not a genetic disease but instead a metabolic disorder. One could not attend a lecture at the American Association of Cancer Research without there being reference to Otto Warburg’s 1956 paper “On the Origin of Cancer Cells” that described the metabolic basis of human malignancy.

Despite our myopic focus on cancer genomics, there is a growing recognition that cancer represents dysregulated energy metabolism. The high utilization of glucose, a hallmark of malignantly transformed cells, (and the target of PET scan diagnostics), in part reflects the process of aerobic glycolysis, whereby cells provided ample oxygen nonetheless eschew the efficiency of mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation in favor of seemingly inefficient lactate production.

Into this new realm of biochemically driven developments, a growing number of therapeutic agents that target glucose metabolism are finding their way into the clinic. To the dismay of some, the mutations that our molecular biologists identify are increasingly found to represent intermediates of cellular metabolism, forcing many to go back to relearn biochemistry. Thus, the avidity for glucose represented by uptake of the PET scan reagent F18 fluorodeoxyglucose by tumor cells, is a diagnostic application of what, in the future, may provide meaningful therapeutic opportunities.

The Tumor Micro Environment

As I was reading the October 1 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, past the pages of advertisement by gene profiling companies, I came upon an article of very real interest.

While most scientists continue to focus on cancer-gene analyses, a report in this issue from a collaboration between American and European investigators provided compelling evidence for the role of tumor associated inflammatory cells in metastatic human cancer. (Asgharzadeh, S J Clin Oncol 30 (28)3525–3532 Oct 1, 2012) Through the analysis of children with metastatic neuroblastoma, they found that the degree of infiltration into the tumor environment by macrophages had a profound effect upon clinical outcome. This study confirmed earlier reports that macrophage infiltration is an integral part and potential driver of the malignant process.

Using immunohistochemistry and light microscopy the investigators scored patients for the number of CD163(+) macrophages, representing the alternatively activated (M2) subset within the tumor tissue. They then examined inflammation related gene expressions to develop a “high” risk, “low” risk algorithm and applied it to the progression free survival in these children.

Highly significant differences were observed between the two groups. This report adds to a growing body of literature that describes the interplay between cancer cells and their microenvironment. Similar studies in breast cancer, melanoma and multiple myeloma have shown that tumor cells “co-opt” their non-malignant counterparts as they drive transformation from benign to malignant, from in-situ to invasive and from localized disease to metastatic. These same forces have the potential to strongly influence cellular responses to stressors like chemotherapy and growth factor withdrawal. While we may now be on the verge of identifying these tumor attributes and characterizing their impact upon survival, these analyses represent little more than increasingly sophisticated prognostics.

The task at hand remains the elucidation of those attributes and features that characterize each patient’s tumor response to injury toward ultimate therapeutic response. To address this level of complexity, we need the guidance of more global measures of human tumor biology, measures that incorporate the dynamic interplay between tumors cells, their stroma, vasculature and the inflammatory environment.  These are the “real-time” insights that can only be achieved using human tissue in its native state. Ex vivo analyses offer these insights. Their information moves us from the realm of prognostics to one of predictives, and it is after all predictive measures that our patients are most desperately in need of today.

Systems Biology Comes of Age: Metastatic Lung Cancer in the Crosshairs

Cancer therapists have long sought mechanisms to match patients to available therapies. Current fashion revolves around DNA mutations, gene copy and rearrangements to select drugs. While every cancer patient may be as unique as their fingerprints, all of the fingerprints on file with the federal AFIS (automated fingerprint identification system) database don’t add up to a hill of genes (pun intended), if you can’t connect them to the criminal.

To continue the analogy, it doesn’t matter why the individual chose a life of crime, his upbringing, childhood traumas or personal tragedies. What matters is that you capture him in the flesh and incarcerate him (or her, to be politically correct).

The term we apply to the study of cancer, as a biological phenomenon is “systems biology.” This discipline strikes fear into the heart of molecular biologists, for it complicates their tidy algorithms and undermines the artificial linearity of their cancer pathways. We frequently allude to the catchphrase, genotype ≠ phenotype, yet it is the cancer phenotype that we must confront if we are to cure this disease.

Using a systems biology approach, we applied the ex-vivo analysis of programmed cell death (EVA-PCD®) to the study of previously untreated patients with non-small cell lung cancer. Tissue aggregates isolated from their surgical specimens were studied in their native state against drugs and signal transduction inhibitors. This methodology captures all of the interacting “systems,” as they respond to cytotoxic agents and growth factor withdrawal. The trial was powered to achieve a two-fold improvement in response.

At interim analysis, we had more than accomplished our goal. The results speak for themselves.

First: a two-fold improvement in clinical response – from the national average of 30 percent we achieved 64.5 percent (p – 0.00015).

Second: The median time to progression was improved from 6.4 to 8.5 months.

Third: And most importantly the median overall survival was improved from an average of 10 – 12 months to 21.3 months, a near doubling.

These results, from a prospective clinical trial in which previously untreated lung cancer patients were provided assay directed therapy, reflects the first real time application of systems biology to chemotherapeutics. The closest comparison for improved clinical outcome with chemotherapeutic drugs chosen from among all active agents by a molecular platform in a prospective clinical trial is . . .

Oh, that’s right there isn’t any.