Stalking Leukemia Genes One Whole Genome at a Time

An article by Gina Kolata on the front page of the July 8, Sunday New York Times, “In Leukemia Treatment, Glimpses of the Future,” tells the heartwarming story of a young physician afflicted with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Diagnosed in medical school, the patient initially achieved a complete remission, only to suffer a recurrence that led him to undergo a bone marrow transplant. When the disease recurred a second time years later, his options were more limited.

As a researcher at Washington University himself, this young physician had access to the most sophisticated genomic analyses in the world. His colleagues and a team of investigators put all 26 of the University’s gene sequencing machines to work around the clock to complete a whole genome sequence, in search of a driver mutation. The results identified FLT3. This mutation had previously been described in acute leukemia and is known to be a target for several available small molecule tyrosine kinase inhibitors. After arranging to procure sunitinib (Sutent, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals), the patient began treatment and had a prompt and complete remission, one that he continues to enjoy to this day.

The story is one of triumph over adversity and exemplifies genomic analysis in the identification of targets for therapy. What it also represents is a labor-intensive, costly, and largely unavailable approach to cancer management. While good outcomes in leukemia have been the subject of many reports, imatinib for CML among them, this does not obtain for most of the common, solid tumors that lack targets for these new silver bullets. Indeed, the article itself describes unsuccessful efforts on the part of Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens, to probe their own genomes for effective treatments. More to the point, few patients have access to 26 gene-sequencing machines capable of identifying genomic targets. A professor of bioethics from the University of Washington, Wiley Burke, raised additional ethical questions surrounding the availability of these approaches only to the most connected and wealthiest of individuals.

While brute force sequencing of human genomes are becoming more popular, the approach lacks scientific elegance. Pattern recognition yielding clues, almost by accident, relegates scientists to the role of spectator and removes them from hypothesis-driven investigation that characterized centuries of successful research.

The drug sunitinib is known for its inhibitory effect upon VEGF 1, 2 and 3, PDGFr, c-kit and FLT3. Recognizing the attributes of this drug and being well aware of C-KIT and FLT3’s role in leukemias, we regularly add sunitinib into our leukemia tissue cultures to test for cytotoxic effects in malignantly transformed cells.  The insights gained enable us to simply and quickly gauge the likelihood of efficacy in patients for drugs like sunitinib.

Once again we find that expensive, difficult tests seem preferable to inexpensive, simple ones. While the technocrats at the helm of oncology research promise to drive the price of these tests down to a level of affordability, everyday we wait 1,581 Americans die of cancer. Perhaps, while we await perfect tests that might work tomorrow, we should use good tests that work today.

Cancer Research Becomes “Curiouser and Curiouser”

Following the Gina Kolata New York Times article on July 8, 2011, which described the failure of the Duke University gene profile program in lung cancer, a second New York Times article popped up on the radar screen.  “Cancer’s Secrets Come into Sharper Focus” by George Johnson, examined the growing complexity of cancer research.

This article explored the growing realization that human biology is not linear. Included were references to work that we have previously described in this blog, including the groundbreaking work of Pier Paolo Pandolfi. It also described the interaction between the human body and its microbial flora. We have long recognized that human health is, in part, associated with our interaction with microbes in our environment. The gastrointestinal tract has numerous species that are increasingly believed to contribute to our health. The growing field of probiotics, wherein people consume “healthy organisms,” has gone from quackery to community standard in less than a decade.

What is interesting over the past years is the growing recognition that many cancers are related to infections. Viral infections are known to be oncogenic, with the Epstein-Barr virus, HPV and other viruses now known to be causative of lymphomas, cervical, head and neck, and other cancers. The association between helicobacter and ulcers, gastric lymphoma, and esophageal malignancies are of interest both epidemiologically and therapeutically.

What is most interesting of all is the growing recognition that the cancer cell is but a small component of the cancer.

Here at Rational Therapeutics we recognized the interplay between cells, stroma, vascular elements, cytokines, macrophages, lymphocytes and other environmental factors. This lead to our focus on the human tumor primary culture microspheroid, which contains all of these elements. In our earlier work, we endeavored to isolate tumor cells from their benign constituents so as to study “pure” tumor cells. As time went on, however, we found that these disaggregated cells were artificially sensitized to the effects of chemotherapy and provided false positive results in vitro.

Early work by Beverly Teicher and Robert Kerbel that examined cells alone and in 3-dimensional structures, lead to the realization that cancer cells inhabit a microenvironment. Our lab now studies cancer response to drugs within this microenvironment, enabling us to provide clinically relevant predictions to our patients.

It is our capacity to study human tumor microenvironments that distinguishes us from other platforms in the field. And, it is this capacity that enables us to conduct discovery work on the most sophisticated classes of compounds that influence cell signaling at the level of notch, hedgehog and WNT, among other (Gonsalves, F, et al. (2011). An RNAi-based chemical genetic screen identifies three small-molecule inhibitors of WNT/wingless signaling pathway. PNAS vol. 108, no. 15, pp. 5954-5963).  With this clinically validated platform we are now positioned to streamline drug development and advance experimental therapeutics.