Archive for the ‘Signaling’ Category

Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.


A mutated gene called RAS gives rise to a signalling protein Ral which is involved in tumour growth in the bladder. Many researchers tried and failed to target and stop this wayward gene. Signalling proteins such as Ral usually shift between active and inactive states.


So, researchers next tried to stop Ral to get into active state. In inacvtive state Ral exposes a pocket which gets closed when active. After five years, the researchers found a small molecule dubbed BQU57 that can wedge itself into the pocket to prevent Ral from closing and becoming active. Now, BQU57 has been licensed for further development.


Researchers have a growing genetic data on bladder cancer, some of which threaten to overturn the supposed causes of bladder cancer. Genetics has also allowed bladder cancer to be reclassified from two categories into five distinct subtypes, each with different characteristics and weak spots. All these advances bode well for drug development and for improved diagnosis and prognosis.


Among the groups studying the genetics of bladder cancer are two large international teams: Uromol (named for urology and molecular biology), which is based at Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark, and The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), based at institutions in Texas and Boston. Each team tackled a different type of cancer, based on the traditional classification of whether or not a tumour has grown into the muscle wall of the bladder. Uromol worked on the more common, earlier form, non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer, whereas TCGA is looking at muscle-invasive bladder cancer, which has a lower survival rate.


The Uromol team sought to identify people whose non-invasive tumours might return after treatment, becoming invasive or even metastatic. Bladder cancer has a high risk of recurrence, so people whose non-invasive cancer has been treated need to be monitored for many years, undergoing cystoscopy every few months. They looked for predictive genetic footprints in the transcriptome of the cancer, which contains all of a cell’s RNA and can tell researchers which genes are turned on or off.


They found three subgroups with distinct basal and luminal features, as proposed by other groups, each with different clinical outcomes in early-stage bladder cancer. These features sort bladder cancer into genetic categories that can help predict whether the cancer will return. The researchers also identified mutations that are linked to tumour progression. Mutations in the so-called APOBEC genes, which code for enzymes that modify RNA or DNA molecules. This effect could lead to cancer and cause it to be aggressive.


The second major research group, TCGA, led by the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute, that involves thousands of researchers across USA. The project has already mapped genomic changes in 33 cancer types, including breast, skin and lung cancers. The TCGA researchers, who study muscle-invasive bladder cancer, have looked at tumours that were already identified as fast-growing and invasive.


The work by Uromol, TCGA and other labs has provided a clearer view of the genetic landscape of early- and late-stage bladder cancer. There are five subtypes for the muscle-invasive form: luminal, luminal–papillary, luminal–infiltrated, basal–squamous, and neuronal, each of which is genetically distinct and might require different therapeutic approaches.


Bladder cancer has the third-highest mutation rate of any cancer, behind only lung cancer and melanoma. The TCGA team has confirmed Uromol research showing that most bladder-cancer mutations occur in the APOBEC genes. It is not yet clear why APOBEC mutations are so common in bladder cancer, but studies of the mutations have yielded one startling implication. The APOBEC enzyme causes mutations early during the development of bladder cancer, and independent of cigarette smoke or other known exposures.


The TCGA researchers found a subset of bladder-cancer patients, those with the greatest number of APOBEC mutations, had an extremely high five-year survival rate of about 75%. Other patients with fewer APOBEC mutations fared less well which is pretty surprising.


This detailed knowledge of bladder-cancer genetics may help to pinpoint the specific vulnerabilities of cancer cells in different people. Over the past decade, Broad Institute researchers have identified more than 760 genes that cancer needs to grow and survive. Their genetic map might take another ten years to finish, but it will list every genetic vulnerability that can be exploited. The goal of cancer precision medicine is to take the patient’s tumour and decode the genetics, so the clinician can make a decision based on that information.





Read Full Post »

Recent Research On SMAD4 In Pancreatic Cancer

Curator: David Orchard-Webb, PhD


Deleted in Pancreatic Cancer, locus 4 (DPC4) officially known as SMAD4 is a component of the Transforming Growth Factor Beta (TGFß) pathway with tumour suppressive properties. As its name suggests it is frequently lost in pancreatic cancer, although through a variety of mechanisms in addition to gene deletion. The loss of SMAD4 is important in the progression of pancreatic intraepithelial neoplasia (PanIN) towards pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). The expression of SMAD4 can suppress metastasis, angiogenesis, and cancer stem-like cell generation. SMAD4 can promote cancer cell apoptosis through a recently described mechanism involving a lethal epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT). SMAD4 status has a predictive role in pancreatic cancer personalised medicine. This curation categorises recent publications of note regarding SMAD4.


Role of SMAD4 in neoplastic progression towards PDAC


Garcia-Carracedo, Dario, Chih-Chieh Yu, Nathan Akhavan, Stuart A. Fine, Frank Schönleben, Naoki Maehara, Dillon C. Karg, et al. ‘Smad4 Loss Synergizes with TGFα Overexpression in Promoting Pancreatic Metaplasia, PanIN Development, and Fibrosis’. Edited by Ilse Rooman. PLOS ONE 10, no. 3 (24 March 2015): e0120851. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0120851.


Norris, A M, A Gore, A Balboni, A Young, D S Longnecker, and M Korc. ‘AGR2 Is a SMAD4-Suppressible Gene That Modulates MUC1 Levels and Promotes the Initiation and Progression of Pancreatic Intraepithelial Neoplasia’. Oncogene 32, no. 33 (15 August 2013): 3867–76. doi:10.1038/onc.2012.394.


Leung, Lisa, Nikolina Radulovich, Chang-Qi Zhu, Dennis Wang, Christine To, Emin Ibrahimov, and Ming-Sound Tsao. ‘Loss of Canonical Smad4 Signaling Promotes KRAS Driven Malignant Transformation of Human Pancreatic Duct Epithelial Cells and Metastasis’. Edited by Hidayatullah G Munshi. PLoS ONE 8, no. 12 (27 December 2013): e84366. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084366.


Mechanism of SMAD4 deactivation


Xia, Xiang, Kundong Zhang, Gang Cen, Tao Jiang, Jun Cao, Kejian Huang, Chen Huang, Qian Zhao, and Zhengjun Qiu. ‘MicroRNA-301a-3p Promotes Pancreatic Cancer Progression via Negative Regulation of SMAD4’. Oncotarget 6, no. 25 (28 August 2015): 21046–63. doi:10.18632/oncotarget.4124.


Murphy, Stephen J., Steven N. Hart, Geoffrey C. Halling, Sarah H. Johnson, James B. Smadbeck, Travis Drucker, Joema Felipe Lima, et al. ‘Integrated Genomic Analysis of Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinomas Reveals Genomic Rearrangement Events as Significant Drivers of Disease’. Cancer Research 76, no. 3 (1 February 2016): 749–61. doi:10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-15-2198.


Sawai, Yugo, Yuzo Kodama, Takahiro Shimizu, Yuji Ota, Takahisa Maruno, Yuji Eso, Akira Kurita, et al. ‘Activation-Induced Cytidine Deaminase Contributes to Pancreatic Tumorigenesis by Inducing Tumor-Related Gene Mutations’. Cancer Research 75, no. 16 (15 August 2015): 3292–3301. doi:10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-14-3028.


Demagny, Hadrien, and Edward M De Robertis. ‘Point Mutations in the Tumor Suppressor Smad4/DPC4 Enhance Its Phosphorylation by GSK3 and Reversibly Inactivate TGF-β Signaling’. Molecular & Cellular Oncology 3, no. 1 (2 January 2016): e1025181. doi:10.1080/23723556.2015.1025181.


Foster, David. ‘BxPC3 Pancreatic Cancer Cells Express a Truncated Smad4 Protein upon PI3K and mTOR Inhibition’. Oncology Letters, 28 January 2014. doi:10.3892/ol.2014.1833.


Hao, Jun, Shuyu Zhang, Yingqi Zhou, Cong Liu, Xiangui Hu, and Chenghao Shao. ‘MicroRNA 421 Suppresses DPC4/Smad4 in Pancreatic Cancer’. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 406, no. 4 (25 March 2011): 552–57. doi:10.1016/j.bbrc.2011.02.086.


SMAD4 effects on cell motility


Zhang, Xueying, Junxia Cao, Yujun Pei, Jiyan Zhang, and Qingyang Wang. ‘Smad4 Inhibits Cell Migration via Suppression of JNK Activity in Human Pancreatic Carcinoma PANC‑1 Cells’. Oncology Letters, 7 April 2016. doi:10.3892/ol.2016.4427.


Kang, Ya ’an, Jianhua Ling, Rei Suzuki, David Roife, Xavier Chopin-Laly, Mark J. Truty, Deyali Chatterjee, et al. ‘SMAD4 Regulates Cell Motility through Transcription of N-Cadherin in Human Pancreatic Ductal Epithelium’. Edited by Neil A. Hotchin. PLoS ONE 9, no. 9 (29 September 2014): e107948. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0107948.


Chen, Yu-Wen, Pi-Jung Hsiao, Ching-Chieh Weng, Kung-Kai Kuo, Tzu-Lei Kuo, Deng-Chyang Wu, Wen-Chun Hung, and Kuang-Hung Cheng. ‘SMAD4 Loss Triggers the Phenotypic Changes of Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma Cells’. BMC Cancer 14, no. 1 (2014): 1.


SMAD4 effects on angiogenesis


Zhou, Zhichao, Juming Lu, Jingtao Dou, Zhaohui Lv, Xi Qin, and Jing Lin. ‘FHL1 and Smad4 Synergistically Inhibit Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor Expression’. Molecular Medicine Reports 7, no. 2 (February 2013): 649–53. doi:10.3892/mmr.2012.1202.


SMAD4 mediated repression of cancer stem-like cells


Hoshino, Yukari, Jun Nishida, Yoko Katsuno, Daizo Koinuma, Taku Aoki, Norihiro Kokudo, Kohei Miyazono, and Shogo Ehata. ‘Smad4 Decreases the Population of Pancreatic Cancer–Initiating Cells through Transcriptional Repression of ALDH1A1’. The American Journal of Pathology 185, no. 5 (2015): 1457–1470.


SMAD4 mediated growth inhibition/ apoptosis induction


David, Charles J., Yun-Han Huang, Mo Chen, Jie Su, Yilong Zou, Nabeel Bardeesy, Christine A. Iacobuzio-Donahue, and Joan Massagué. ‘TGF-β Tumor Suppression through a Lethal EMT’. Cell 164, no. 5 (February 2016): 1015–30. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2016.01.009.


Wang, Qi, Juanjuan Li, Wei Wu, Ruizhe Shen, He Jiang, Yuting Qian, Yanping Tang, et al. ‘Smad4-Dependent Suppressor Pituitary Homeobox 2 Promotes PPP2R2A-Mediated Inhibition of Akt Pathway in Pancreatic Cancer’. Oncotarget 7, no. 10 (8 March 2016): 11208–22. doi:10.18632/oncotarget.7158.


Poorly characterised targets of SMAD4


Fullerton, Paul T., Chad J. Creighton, and Martin M. Matzuk. ‘Insights Into SMAD4 Loss in Pancreatic Cancer From Inducible Restoration of TGF-β Signaling’. Molecular Endocrinology (Baltimore, Md.) 29, no. 10 (October 2015): 1440–53. doi:10.1210/me.2015-1102.


Li, Lei, Zhaoshen Li, Xiangyu Kong, Dacheng Xie, Zhiliang Jia, Weihua Jiang, Jiujie Cui, et al. ‘Down-Regulation of MicroRNA-494 via Loss of SMAD4 Increases FOXM1 and β-Catenin Signaling in Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma Cells’. Gastroenterology 147, no. 2 (August 2014): 485–497.e18. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2014.04.048.


Drugs that restore SMAD4


Lin, Sheng-Zhang, Jin-Bo Xu, Xu Ji, Hui Chen, Hong-Tao Xu, Ping Hu, Liang Chen, et al. ‘Emodin Inhibits Angiogenesis in Pancreatic Cancer by Regulating the Transforming Growth Factor-Β/drosophila Mothers against Decapentaplegic Pathway and Angiogenesis-Associated microRNAs’. Molecular Medicine Reports 12, no. 4 (October 2015): 5865–71. doi:10.3892/mmr.2015.4158.


Predictive value of SMAD4 status in personalised medicine


Whittle, Martin C., Kamel Izeradjene, P. Geetha Rani, Libing Feng, Markus A. Carlson, Kathleen E. DelGiorno, Laura D. Wood, et al. ‘RUNX3 Controls a Metastatic Switch in Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma’. Cell 161, no. 6 (June 2015): 1345–60. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2015.04.048.


Boone, Brian A., Shirin Sabbaghian, Mazen Zenati, J. Wallis Marsh, A. James Moser, Amer H. Zureikat, Aatur D. Singhi, Herbert J. Zeh, and Alyssa M. Krasinskas. ‘Loss of SMAD4 Staining in Pre-Operative Cell Blocks Is Associated with Distant Metastases Following Pancreaticoduodenectomy with Venous Resection for Pancreatic Cancer’. Journal of Surgical Oncology 110, no. 2 (August 2014): 171–75. doi:10.1002/jso.23606.


Herman, Joseph M., Katherine Y. Fan, Aaron T. Wild, Laura D. Wood, Amanda L. Blackford, Ross C. Donehower, Manuel Hidalgo, et al. ‘Correlation of Smad4 Status With Outcomes in Patients Receiving Erlotinib Combined With Adjuvant Chemoradiation and Chemotherapy After Resection for Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma’. International Journal of Radiation Oncology*Biology*Physics 87, no. 3 (November 2013): 458–59. doi:10.1016/j.ijrobp.2013.06.2039.


Other Related Articles Published In This Open Access Online Journal Include The Following:


Read Full Post »

Signaling through the T Cell Receptor (TCR) Complex and the Co-stimulatory Receptor CD28

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP



New connections: T cell actin dynamics

Fluorescence microscopy is one of the most important tools in cell biology research because it provides spatial and temporal information to investigate regulatory systems inside cells. This technique can generate data in the form of signal intensities at thousands of positions resolved inside individual live cells. However, given extensive cell-to-cell variation, these data cannot be readily assembled into three- or four-dimensional maps of protein concentration that can be compared across different cells and conditions. We have developed a method to enable comparison of imaging data from many cells and applied it to investigate actin dynamics in T cell activation. Antigen recognition in T cells by the T cell receptor (TCR) is amplified by engagement of the costimulatory receptor CD28. We imaged actin and eight core actin regulators to generate over a thousand movies of T cells under conditions in which CD28 was either engaged or blocked in the context of a strong TCR signal. Our computational analysis showed that the primary effect of costimulation blockade was to decrease recruitment of the activator of actin nucleation WAVE2 (Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome protein family verprolin-homologous protein 2) and the actin-severing protein cofilin to F-actin. Reconstitution of WAVE2 and cofilin activity restored the defect in actin signaling dynamics caused by costimulation blockade. Thus, we have developed and validated an approach to quantify protein distributions in time and space for the analysis of complex regulatory systems.



Triple-Color FRET Analysis Reveals Conformational Changes in the WIP-WASp Actin-Regulating Complex



T cell activation by antigens involves the formation of a complex, highly dynamic, yet organized signaling complex at the site of the T cell receptors (TCRs). Srikanth et al. found that the lymphocyte-specific large guanosine triphosphatase of the Rab family CRACR2A-a associated with vesicles near the Golgi in unstimulated mouse and human CD4+ T cells. Upon TCR activation, these vesicles moved to the immunological synapse (the contact region between a T cell and an antigen-presenting cell). The guanine nucleotide exchange factor Vav1 at the TCR complex recruited CRACR2A-a to the complex. Without CRACR2A-a, T cell activation was compromised because of defective calcium and kinase signaling.

More than 60 members of the Rab family of guanosine triphosphatases (GTPases) exist in the human genome. Rab GTPases are small proteins that are primarily involved in the formation, trafficking, and fusion of vesicles. We showed that CRACR2A (Ca2+ release–activated Ca2+ channel regulator 2A) encodes a lymphocyte-specific large Rab GTPase that contains multiple functional domains, including EF-hand motifs, a proline-rich domain (PRD), and a Rab GTPase domain with an unconventional prenylation site. Through experiments involving gene silencing in cells and knockout mice, we demonstrated a role for CRACR2A in the activation of the Ca2+ and c-Jun N-terminal kinase signaling pathways in response to T cell receptor (TCR) stimulation. Vesicles containing this Rab GTPase translocated from near the Golgi to the immunological synapse formed between a T cell and a cognate antigen-presenting cell to activate these signaling pathways. The interaction between the PRD of CRACR2A and the guanidine nucleotide exchange factor Vav1 was required for the accumulation of these vesicles at the immunological synapse. Furthermore, we demonstrated that GTP binding and prenylation of CRACR2A were associated with its localization near the Golgi and its stability. Our findings reveal a previously uncharacterized function of a large Rab GTPase and vesicles near the Golgi in TCR signaling. Other GTPases with similar domain architectures may have similar functions in T cells.


Read Full Post »

Effect of mitochondrial stress on epigenetic modifiers

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Early Mitochondrial Stress Alters Epigenetics, Secures Lifelong Health Benefits

GEN 5/3/2016

A little adversity builds character, or so the saying goes. True or not, the saying does seem an apt description of a developmental phenomenon that shapes gene expression. While it knows nothing of character, the gene expression apparatus appears to respond well to short-term mitochondrial stress that occurs early in development. In fact, transient stress seems to result in lasting benefits. These benefits, which include improved metabolic function and increased longevity, have been observed in both worms and mice, and may even occur—or be made to occur—in humans.

Gene expression is known to be subject to reprogramming by epigenetic modifiers, but such modifiers generally affect metabolism or lifespan, not both. A new set of epigenetic modifiers, however, has been found to trigger changes that do just that—both improve metabolism and extend lifespan.

Scientists based at the University of California, Berkeley, and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have discovered enzymes that are ramped up after mild stress during early development and continue to affect the expression of genes throughout the animal’s life. When the scientists looked at strains of inbred mice that have radically different lifespans, those with the longest lifespans had significantly higher expression of these enzymes than did the short-lived mice.

“Two of the enzymes we discovered are highly, highly correlated with lifespan; it is the biggest genetic correlation that has ever been found for lifespan in mice, and they’re both naturally occurring variants,” said Andrew Dillin, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology. “Based on what we see in worms, boosting these enzymes could reprogram your metabolism to create better health, with a possible side effect of altering lifespan.”

Details of the work, which appeared online April 29 in the journal Cell, are presented in a pair of papers. One paper (“Two Conserved Histone Demethylases Regulate Mitochondrial Stress-Induced Longevity”) resulted from an effort led by Dillin and the EPFL’s Johan Auwerx. The other paper (“Mitochondrial Stress Induces Chromatin Reorganization to Promote Longevity and UPRmt”) resulted from an effort led by Dillin and his UC Berkeley colleague Barbara Meyer.

According to these papers, mitochondrial stress activates enzymes in the brain that affect DNA folding, exposing a segment of DNA that contains the 1500 genes involved in the work of the mitochondria. A second set of enzymes then tags these genes, affecting their activation for much or all of the lifetime of the animal and causing permanent changes in how the mitochondria generates energy.

The first set of enzymes—methylases, in particular LIN-65—add methyl groups to the DNA, which can silence promoters and thus suppress gene expression. By also opening up the mitochondrial genes, these methylases set the stage for the second set of enzymes—demethylases, in this case jmjd-1.2 and jmjd-3.1—to ramp up transcription of the mitochondrial genes. When the researchers artificially increased production of the demethylases in worms, all the worms lived longer, a result identical to what is observed after mitochondrial stress.

“By changing the epigenetic state, these enzymes are able to switch genes on and off,” Dillin noted. This happens only in the brain of the worm, however, in areas that sense hunger or satiety. “These genes are expressed in neurons that are sensing the nutritional status of the animal, and these signals emanate out to the periphery to change peripheral metabolism,” he continued.

When the scientists profiled enzymes in short- and long-lived mice, they found upregulation of these genes in the brains of long-lived mice, but not in other tissues or in the brains of short-lived mice. “These genes are expressed in the hypothalamus, exactly where, when you eat, the signals are generated that tell you that you are full. And when you are hungry, signals in that region tell you to go and eat,” Dillin explained said. “These genes are all involved in peripheral feedback.”

Among the mitochondrial genes activated by these enzymes are those involved in the body’s response to proteins that unfold, which is a sign of stress. Increased activity of the proteins that refold other proteins is another hallmark of longer life.

These observations suggest that the reversal of aging by epigenetic enzymes could also take place in humans.

“It seems that, while extreme metabolic stress can lead to problems later in life, mild stress early in development says to the body, ‘Whoa, things are a little bit off-kilter here, let’s try to repair this and make it better.’ These epigenetic switches keep this up for the rest of the animal’s life,” Dillin stated.


Two Conserved Histone Demethylases Regulate Mitochondrial Stress-Induced Longevity

Carsten Merkwirth6, Virginija Jovaisaite6, Jenni Durieux,…., Reuben J. Shaw, Johan Auwerx, Andrew Dillin

  • H3K27 demethylases jmjd-1.2 and jmjd-3.1 are required for ETC-mediated longevity
  • jmjd-1.2 and jmjd-3.1 extend lifespan and are sufficient for UPRmt activation
  • UPRmt is required for increased lifespan due to jmjd-1.2 or jmjd-3.1 overexpression
  • JMJD expression is correlated with UPRmt and murine lifespan in inbred BXD lines

Across eukaryotic species, mild mitochondrial stress can have beneficial effects on the lifespan of organisms. Mitochondrial dysfunction activates an unfolded protein response (UPRmt), a stress signaling mechanism designed to ensure mitochondrial homeostasis. Perturbation of mitochondria during larval development in C. elegans not only delays aging but also maintains UPRmt signaling, suggesting an epigenetic mechanism that modulates both longevity and mitochondrial proteostasis throughout life. We identify the conserved histone lysine demethylases jmjd-1.2/PHF8 and jmjd-3.1/JMJD3 as positive regulators of lifespan in response to mitochondrial dysfunction across species. Reduction of function of the demethylases potently suppresses longevity and UPRmt induction, while gain of function is sufficient to extend lifespan in a UPRmt-dependent manner. A systems genetics approach in the BXD mouse reference population further indicates conserved roles of the mammalian orthologs in longevity and UPRmt signaling. These findings illustrate an evolutionary conserved epigenetic mechanism that determines the rate of aging downstream of mitochondrial perturbations.

Figure thumbnail fx1


Mitochondrial Stress Induces Chromatin Reorganization to Promote Longevity and UPRmt
Ye Tian, Gilberto Garcia, Qian Bian, Kristan K. Steffen, Larry Joe, Suzanne Wolff, Barbara J. Meyer, Andrew Dillincorrespondence             Publication stage: In Press Corrected Proof
  • LIN-65 accumulates in the nucleus in response to mitochondrial stress
  • Mitochondrial stress-induced chromatin changes depend on MET-2 and LIN-65
  • LIN-65 and DVE-1 exhibit interdependence in nuclear accumulation
  • met-2 and atfs-1 act in parallel to affect mitochondrial stress-induced longevity

Organisms respond to mitochondrial stress through the upregulation of an array of protective genes, often perpetuating an early response to metabolic dysfunction across a lifetime. We find that mitochondrial stress causes widespread changes in chromatin structure through histone H3K9 di-methylation marks traditionally associated with gene silencing. Mitochondrial stress response activation requires the di-methylation of histone H3K9 through the activity of the histone methyltransferase met-2 and the nuclear co-factor lin-65. While globally the chromatin becomes silenced by these marks, remaining portions of the chromatin open up, at which point the binding of canonical stress responsive factors such as DVE-1 occurs. Thus, a metabolic stress response is established and propagated into adulthood of animals through specific epigenetic modifications that allow for selective gene expression and lifespan extension

 Siddharta Mukherjee’s Writing Career Just Got Dealt a Sucker Punch
Author: Theral Timpson

Siddharha Mukherjee won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction for his book, The Emperor of All Maladies.  The book has received widespread acclaim among lay audience, physicians, and scientists alike.  Last year the book was turned into a special PBS series.  But, according to a slew of scientists, we should all be skeptical of his next book scheduled to hit book shelves this month, The Gene, An Intimate History.

Publishing an article on epigenetics in the New Yorker this week–perhaps a selection from his new book–Mukherjee has waltzed into one of the most active scientific debates in all of biology: that of gene regulation, or epigenetics.

Jerry Coyne, the evolutionary biologist known for keeping journalists honest, has published a two part critique of Mukherjee’s New Yorker piece.  The first part–wildly tweeted yesterday–is a list of quotes from Coyne’s colleagues and those who have written in to the New Yorker, including two Nobel prize winners, Wally Gilbert and Sidney Altman, offering some very unfriendly sentences.

Wally Gilbert: “The New Yorker article is so wildly wrong that it defies rational analysis.”

Sidney Altman:  “I am not aware that there is such a thing as an epigenetic code.  It is unfortunate to inflict this article, without proper scientific review, on the audience of the New Yorker.”

The second part is a thorough scientific rebuttal of the Mukherjee piece.  It all serves as a great drama about one of the most contested ideas in biology and also as a cautionary tale to journalists, even experienced writers such as Mukherjee, about the dangers of wading into scientific arguments.  Readers may remember that a few years ago, science writer, David Dobbs, similarly skated into the same topic with his piece, Die, Selfish Gene, Die, and which raised a similar shitstorm, much of it from Coyne.

Mukherjee’s mistake is in giving credence to only one side of a very fierce debate–that the environment causes changes in the genome which can be passed on; another kind of evolution–as though it were settled science.   Either Mukherjee, a physicisan coming off from a successful book and PBS miniseries on cancer, is setting himself up as a scientist, or he has been a truly naive science reporter.   If he got this chapter so wrong, what does it mean about an entire book on the gene?

Coyne quotes one of his colleagues who raised some questions about the New Yorker’s science reporting, one particular question we’ve been asking here at Mendelspod.  How do we know what we know?  Does science now have an edge on any other discipline for being able to create knowledge?

Coyne’s colleague is troubled by science coverage in the New Yorker, and goes so far as to write that the New Yorker has been waging a “war on behalf of cultural critics and literary intellectuals against scientists and technologists.”

From my experience, it’s not quite that tidy.  First of all, the New Yorker is the best writing I read each week.  Period.  Second, I haven’t found their science writing to have the slant claimed in the quote above.  For example, most other mainstream outlets–including the New York Times with the Amy Harmon pieces–have given the anti-GMO crowd an equal say in the mistaken search for a “balance” on whether GMOs are harmful.  (Remember John Stewart’s criticism of Fox News?  That they give a false equivalent between two sides even when there is no equivalent on the other side?)

But the New Yorker has not fallen into this trap on GMOs and most of their pieces on the topic–mainly by Michael Specter–have been decidedly pro science and therefore decided pro GMO.

So what led Mukherjee to play scientist as well as journalist?  There’s no question about whether I enjoy his prose.  His writing beautifully whisks me away so that I don’t feel that I’m really working to understand.  There is a poetic complexity that constantly brings different threads effortlessly together, weaving them into the same light.  At one point he uses the metaphor of a web for the genome, with the epigenome being the stuff that sticks to the web.  He borrows the metaphor from the Hindu notion of “being”, or jaal.

“Genes form the threads of the web; the detritus that adheres to it transforms every web into a singular being.”

There have been a few writers on Twitter defending Mukherjee’s piece.  Tech Review’s Antonio Regalado called Coyne and his colleagues “tedious literalists” who have an “issue with epigenetic poetry.”

At his best, Mukherjee can take us down the sweet alleys of his metaphors and family stories with a new curiosity for the scientific truth.  He can hold a mirror up to scientists, or put the spotlight on their work.   At their worst, Coyne and his scientific colleagues can reek of a fear of language and therefore metaphor.  The always outspoken scientist and author, Richard Dawkins, who made his name by personifying the gene, was quick to personify epigentics in a tweet:   “It’s high time the 15 minutes of underserved fame for “epigenetics” came to an overdue end.”  Dawkins is that rare scientist who has consistently been as comfortable with rhetoric and language as he is with data.

Hats off to Coyne who reminds us that a metaphor–however lovely–does not some science make. If Mukherjee wants to play scientist, let him create and gather data. If it’s the role of science journalist he wants, let him collect all the science he can before he begins to pour it into his poetry.


Same but Different  

How epigenetics can blur the line between nature and nurture.

Annals of Science MAY 2, 2016 ISSUE     BY

The author’s mother (right) and her twin are a study in difference and identity. CREDIT: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAYANITA SINGH FOR THE NEW YORKER

October 6, 1942, my mother was born twice in Delhi. Bulu, her identical twin, came first, placid and beautiful. My mother, Tulu, emerged several minutes later, squirming and squalling. The midwife must have known enough about infants to recognize that the beautiful are often the damned: the quiet twin, on the edge of listlessness, was severely undernourished and had to be swaddled in blankets and revived.

The first few days of my aunt’s life were the most tenuous. She could not suckle at the breast, the story runs, and there were no infant bottles to be found in Delhi in the forties, so she was fed through a cotton wick dipped in milk, and then from a cowrie shell shaped like a spoon. When the breast milk began to run dry, at seven months, my mother was quickly weaned so that her sister could have the last remnants.
Tulu and Bulu grew up looking strikingly similar: they had the same freckled skin, almond-shaped face, and high cheekbones, unusual among Bengalis, and a slight downward tilt of the outer edge of the eye, something that Italian painters used to make Madonnas exude a mysterious empathy. They shared an inner language, as so often happens with twins; they had jokes that only the other twin understood. They even smelled the same: when I was four or five and Bulu came to visit us, my mother, in a bait-and-switch trick that amused her endlessly, would send her sister to put me to bed; eventually, searching in the half-light for identity and difference—for the precise map of freckles on her face—I would realize that I had been fooled.

But the differences were striking, too. My mother was boisterous. She had a mercurial temper that rose fast and died suddenly, like a gust of wind in a tunnel. Bulu was physically timid yet intellectually more adventurous. Her mind was more agile, her tongue sharper, her wit more lancing. Tulu was gregarious. She made friends easily. She was impervious to insults. Bulu was reserved, quieter, and more brittle. Tulu liked theatre and dancing. Bulu was a poet, a writer, a dreamer.

….. more

Why are identical twins alike? In the late nineteen-seventies, a team of scientists in Minnesota set out to determine how much these similarities arose from genes, rather than environments—from “nature,” rather than “nurture.” Scouring thousands of adoption records and news clips, the researchers gleaned a rare cohort of fifty-six identical twins who had been separated at birth. Reared in different families and different cities, often in vastly dissimilar circumstances, these twins shared only their genomes. Yet on tests designed to measure personality, attitudes, temperaments, and anxieties, they converged astonishingly. Social and political attitudes were powerfully correlated: liberals clustered with liberals, and orthodoxy was twinned with orthodoxy. The same went for religiosity (or its absence), even for the ability to be transported by an aesthetic experience. Two brothers, separated by geographic and economic continents, might be brought to tears by the same Chopin nocturne, as if responding to some subtle, common chord struck by their genomes.

One pair of twins both suffered crippling migraines, owned dogs that they had named Toy, married women named Linda, and had sons named James Allan (although one spelled the middle name with a single “l”). Another pair—one brought up Jewish, in Trinidad, and the other Catholic, in Nazi Germany, where he joined the Hitler Youth—wore blue shirts with epaulets and four pockets, and shared peculiar obsessive behaviors, such as flushing the toilet before using it. Both had invented fake sneezes to diffuse tense moments. Two sisters—separated long before the development of language—had invented the same word to describe the way they scrunched up their noses: “squidging.” Another pair confessed that they had been haunted by nightmares of being suffocated by various metallic objects—doorknobs, fishhooks, and the like.

The Minnesota twin study raised questions about the depth and pervasiveness of qualities specified by genes: Where in the genome, exactly, might one find the locus of recurrent nightmares or of fake sneezes? Yet it provoked an equally puzzling converse question: Why are identical twins different? Because, you might answer, fate impinges differently on their bodies. One twin falls down the crumbling stairs of her Calcutta house and breaks her ankle; the other scalds her thigh on a tipped cup of coffee in a European station. Each acquires the wounds, calluses, and memories of chance and fate. But how are these changes recorded, so that they persist over the years? We know that the genome can manufacture identity; the trickier question is how it gives rise to difference.

….. more

But what turns those genes on and off, and keeps them turned on or off? Why doesn’t a liver cell wake up one morning and find itself transformed into a neuron? Allis unpacked the problem further: suppose he could find an organism with two distinct sets of genes—an active set and an inactive set—between which it regularly toggled. If he could identify the molecular switches that maintain one state, or toggle between the two states, he might be able to identify the mechanism responsible for cellular memory. “What I really needed, then, was a cell with these properties,” he recalled when we spoke at his office a few weeks ago. “Two sets of genes, turned ‘on’ or ‘off’ by some signal.”


“Histones had been known as part of the inner scaffold for DNA for decades,” Allis went on. “But most biologists thought of these proteins merely as packaging, or stuffing, for genes.” When Allis gave scientific seminars in the early nineties, he recalled, skeptics asked him why he was so obsessed with the packing material, the stuff in between the DNA.  …. A skein of silk tangled into a ball has very different properties from that same skein extended; might the coiling or uncoiling of DNA change the activity of genes?

In 1996, Allis and his research group deepened this theory with a seminal discovery. “We became interested in the process of histone modification,” he said. “What is the signal that changes the structure of the histone so that DNA can be packed into such radically different states? We finally found a protein that makes a specific chemical change in the histone, possibly forcing the DNA coil to open. And when we studied the properties of this protein it became quite clear that it was also changing the activity of genes.” The coils of DNA seemed to open and close in response to histone modifications—inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, like life.

Allis walked me to his lab, a fluorescent-lit space overlooking the East River, divided by wide, polished-stone benches. A mechanical stirrer, whirring in a corner, clinked on the edge of a glass beaker. “Two features of histone modifications are notable,” Allis said. “First, changing histones can change the activity of a gene without affecting the sequence of the DNA.” It is, in short, formally epi-genetic, just as Waddington had imagined. “And, second, the histone modifications are passed from a parent cell to its daughter cells when cells divide. A cell can thus record ‘memory,’ and not just for itself but for all its daughter cells.”




The New Yorker screws up big time with science: researchers criticize the Mukherjee piece on epigenetics

Jerry Coyne

Abstract: This is a two part-post about a science piece on gene regulation that just appeared in the New Yorker. Today I give quotes from scientists criticizing that piece; tomorrow I’ll present a semi-formal critique of the piece by two experts in the field.

esterday I gave readers an assignment: read the new New Yorkerpiece by Siddhartha Mukherjee about epigenetics. The piece, called “Same but different” (subtitle: “How epigenetics can blur the line between nature and nurture”) was brought to my attention by two readers, both of whom praised it.  Mukherjee, a physician, is well known for writing the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book (2011) The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. (I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list.)  Mukherjee has a new book that will be published in May: The Gene: An Intimate History. As I haven’t seen it, the New Yorker piece may be an excerpt from this book.

Everyone I know who has read The Emperor of All Maladies gives it high praise. I wish I could say the same for Mukherjee’s New Yorker piece. When I read it at the behest of the two readers, I found his analysis of gene regulation incomplete and superficial. Although I’m not an expert in that area, I knew that there was a lot of evidence that regulatory proteins called “transcription factors”, and not “epigenetic markers” (see discussion of this term tomorrow) or modified histones—the factors emphasized by Mukherjee—played hugely important roles in gene regulation. The speculations at the end of the piece about “Lamarckian evolution” via environmentally induced epigenetic changes in the genome were also unfounded, for we have no evidence for that kind of adaptive evolution. Mukherjee does, however, mention that lack of evidence, though I wish he’d done so more strongly given that environmental modification of DNA bases is constantly touted as an important and neglected factor in evolution.

Unbeknownst to me, there was a bit of a kerfuffle going on in the community of scientists who study gene regulation, with many of them finding serious mistakes and omissions in Mukherjee’s piece.  There appears to have been some back-and-forth emailing among them, and several wrote letters to the New Yorker, urging them to correct the misconceptions, omissions, and scientific errors in “Same but different.” As I understand it, both Mukherjee and the New Yorker simply batted these criticisms away, and, as far as I know, will not publish any corrections.  So today and tomorrow I’ll present the criticisms here, just so they’ll be on the record.

Because Mukherjee writes very well, and because even educated laypeople won’t know the story of gene regulation revealed over the last few decades,  they may not see the big lacunae in his piece. It is, then,  important to set matters straight, for at least we should know what science has told us about how genes are turned on and off. The criticism of Mukherjee’s piece, coming from scientists who really are experts in gene regulation, shows a lack of care on the part of Mukherjee and theNew Yorker: both a superficial and misleading treatment of the state of the science, and a failure of the magazine to properly vet this piece (I have no idea whether they had it “refereed” not just by editors but by scientists not mentioned in the piece).

Let me add one thing about science and the New Yorker. I believe I’ve said this before, but the way the New Yorker treats science is symptomatic of the “two cultures” problem. This is summarized in an email sent me a while back by a colleague, which I quote with permission:

The New Yorker is fine with science that either serves a literary purpose (doctors’ portraits of interesting patients) or a political purpose (environmental writing with its implicit critique of modern technology and capitalism). But the subtext of most of its coverage (there are exceptions) is that scientists are just a self-interested tribe with their own narrative and no claim to finding the truth, and that science must concede the supremacy of literary culture when it comes to anything human, and never try to submit human affairs to quantification or consilience with biology. Because the magazine is undoubtedly sophisticated in its writing and editing they don’t flaunt their postmodernism or their literary-intellectual proprietariness, but once you notice it you can make sense of a lot of their material.

. . . Obviously there are exceptions – Atul Gawande is consistently superb – but as soon as you notice it, their guild war on behalf of cultural critics and literary intellectuals against scientists, technologists, and analytic scholars becomes apparent.

…. more

Researchers criticize the Mukherjee piece on epigenetics: Part 2

Trigger warning: Long science post!

Yesterday I provided a bunch of scientists’ reactions—and these were big names in the field of gene regulation—to Siddhartha Mukherjee’s ill-informed piece in The New Yorker, “Same but different” (subtitle: “How epigenetics can blur the line between nature and nurture”). Today, in part 2, I provide a sentence-by-sentence analysis and reaction by two renowned researchers in that area. We’ll start with a set of definitions (provided by the authors) that we need to understand the debate, and then proceed to the critique.

Let me add one thing to avoid confusion: everything below the line, including the definition (except for my one comment at the end) was written by Ptashne and Greally.

by Mark Ptashne and John Greally


Ptashne is The Ludwig Professor of Molecular Biology at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He wrote A Genetic Switch, now in its third edition, which describes the principles of gene regulation and the workings of a ‘switch’; and, with Alex Gann, Genes and Signals, which extends these principles and ideas to higher organisms and to other cellular processes as well.  John Greally is the Director of the Center for Epigenomics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.


The New Yorker  (May 2, 2016) published an article entitled “Same But Different” written by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  As readers will have gathered from the letters posted yesterday, there is a concern that the article is misleading, especially for a non-scientific audience. The issue concerns our current understanding of “gene regulation” and how that understanding has been arrived at.

First some definitions/concepts:

Gene regulation refers to the “turning on and off of genes”.  The primary event in turning a gene “on” is to transcribe (copy) it into messenger RNA (mRNA). That mRNA is then decoded, usually, into a specific protein.  Genes are transcribed by the enzyme called RNA polymerase.

Development:  the process in which a fertilized egg (e.g., a human egg) divides many times and eventually forms an organism.  During this process, many of the roughly 23,000 genes of a human are turned “on” or “off” in different combinations, at different times and places in the developing organism. The process produces many different cell types in different organs (e.g. liver and brain), but all retain the original set of genes.

Transcription factors: proteins that bind to specific DNA sequences near specific genes and turn transcription of those genes on and off. A transcriptional ‘activator’, for example, bears two surfaces: one binds a specific sequence in DNA, and the other binds to, and thereby recruits to the gene, protein complexes that include RNA polymerase. It is widely acknowledged that the identity of a cell in the body depends on the array of transcription factors present in the cell, and the cell’s history.  RNA molecules can also recognize specific genomic sequences, and they too sometimes work as regulators.  Neither transcription factors nor these kinds of RNA molecules – the fundamental regulators of gene expression and development – are mentioned in the New Yorker article.

Signals:  these come in many forms (small molecules like estrogen, larger molecules (often proteins such as cytokines) that determine the ability of transcription factors to work.  For example, estrogen binds directly to a transcription factor (the estrogen receptor) and, by changing its shape, permits it to bind DNA and activate transcription.

Memory”:  a dividing cell can (often does) produce daughters that are identical, and that express identical genes as does the mother cell.  This occurs because the transcription factors present in the mother cell are passively transmitted to the daughters as the cell divides, and they go to work in their new contexts as before.  To make two different daughters, the cell must distribute its transcription factors asymmetrically.

Positive Feedback: An activator can maintain its own expression by  positive feedback.  This requires, simply, that a copy of the DNA sequence to which the activator binds is  present  near its own gene. Expression of the activator  then becomes self-perpetuating.  The activator (of which there now are many copies in the cell) activates  other target genes as it maintains its own expression. This kind of ‘memory circuit’, first described  in  bacteria, is found in higher organisms as well.  Positive feedback can explain how a fully differentiated cell (that is, a cell that has reached its developmental endpoint) maintains its identity.

Nucleosomes:  DNA in higher organisms (eukaryotes) is wrapped, like beads on a string, around certain proteins (called histones), to form nucleosomes.  The histones are subject to enzymatic modifications: e.g., acetyl, methyl, phosphate, etc. groups can be added to these structures. In bacteria there are no nucleosomes, and the DNA is more or less ‘naked’.

“Epigenetic modifications: please don’t worry about the word ”epigenetic”; it is misused in any case. What Mukherjee refers to by this term are the histone modifications mentioned above, and a modification to DNA itself: the addition of methyl groups. Keep in mind that the organisms that have taught us the most about development – flies (Drosophila) and worms (C. elegans)—do not have the enzymes required for DNA methylation. That does not mean that DNA methylation cannot do interesting things in humans, for example, but it is obviously not at the heart of gene regulation.

Specificity Development requires the highly specific sequential turning on and off of sets of genes.  Transcription factors and RNA supply this specificity, but   enzymes that impart modifications to histones  cannot: every nucleosome (and hence every gene) appears the same to the enzyme.  Thus such enzymes cannot pick out particular nucleosomes associated with particular genes to modify.  Histone modifications might be imagined to convey ‘memory’ as cells divide – but there are no convincing indications that this happens, nor are there molecular models that might explain why they would have the imputed effects.

Analysis and critique of Mukherjee’s article

The picture we have just sketched has taken the combined efforts of many scientists over 50 years to develop.  So what, then, is the problem with the New Yorker article?

There are two: first, the picture we have just sketched, emphasizing the primary role of transcription factors and RNA, is absent.  Second, that picture is replaced by highly dubious speculations, some of which don’t make sense, and none of which has been shown to work as imagined in the article.

(Quotes from the Mukherjee article are indented and in plain text; they are followed by comments, flush left and in bold, by Ptashne and Greally.)

In 1978, having obtained a Ph.D. in biology at Indiana University, Allis began to tackle a problem that had long troubled geneticists and cell biologists: if all the cells in the body have the same genome, how does one become a nerve cell, say, and another a blood cell, which looks and functions very differently?

The problems referred to were recognized long before 1978.  In fact, these were exactly the problems that the great French scientists François Jacob and Jacques Monod took on in the 1950s-60s.  In a series of brilliant experiments, Jacob and Monod showed that in bacteria, certain genes encode products that regulate (turn on and off) specific other genes.  Those regulatory molecules turned out to be proteins, some of which respond to signals from the environment.  Much of the story of modern biology has been figuring out how these proteins – in bacteria and in higher organisms  – bind to and regulate specific genes.  Of note is that in higher organisms, the regulatory proteins look and act like those in bacteria, despite the fact that eukaryotic DNA is wrapped in nucleosomes  whereas bacterial DNA is not.   We have also learned that certain RNA molecules can play a regulatory role, a phenomenon made possible by the fact that RNA molecules, like regulatory proteins, can recognize specific genomic sequences.

In the nineteen-forties, Conrad Waddington, an English embryologist, had proposed an ingenious answer: cells acquired their identities just as humans do—by letting nurture (environmental signals) modify nature (genes). For that to happen, Waddington concluded, an additional layer of information must exist within a cell—a layer that hovered, ghostlike, above the genome. This layer would carry the “memory” of the cell, recording its past and establishing its future, marking its identity and its destiny but permitting that identity to be changed, if needed. He termed the phenomenon “epigenetics”—“above genetics.”

This description greatly misrepresents the original concept.  Waddington argued that development proceeds not by the loss (or gain) of genes, which would be a “genetic” process, but rather that some genes would be selectively expressed in specific and complex cellular patterns as development proceeds.  He referred to this intersection of embryology (then called “epigenesis”) and genetics as “epigenetic”.We now understand that regulatory proteins work in combinations to turn on and off genes, including their own genes, and that sometimes the regulatory proteins respond to signals sent by other cells.  It should be emphasized that Waddington never proposed any “ghost-like” layer of additional information hovering above the gene.  This is a later misinterpretation of a literal translation of the term epigenetics, with “epi-“ meaning “above/upon” the genetic information encoded in DNA sequence.  Unfortunately, this new and pervasive definition encompasses all of transcriptional regulation and is of no practical value.


By 2000, Allis and his colleagues around the world had identified a gamut of proteins that could modify histones, and so modulate the activity of genes. Other systems, too, that could scratch different kinds of code on the genome were identified (some of these discoveries predating the identification of histone modifications). One involved the addition of a chemical side chain, called a methyl group, to DNA. The methyl groups hang off the DNA string like Christmas ornaments, and specific proteins add and remove the ornaments, in effect “decorating” the genome. The most heavily methylated parts of the genome tend to be dampened in their activity.

It is true that enzymes that modify histones have been found—lots of them.  A striking problem is that, after all this time, it is not at all clear what the vast majority of these modifications do.  When these enzymatic activities are eliminated by mutation of their active sites (a task substantially easier to accomplish in yeast than in higher organisms) they mostly have little or no effect on transcription.  It is not even clear that histones are the biologically relevant substrates of most of these enzymes.  

 In the ensuing decade, Allis wrote enormous, magisterial papers in which a rich cast of histone-modifying proteins appear and reappear through various roles, mapping out a hatchwork of complexity. . . These protein systems, overlaying information on the genome, interacted with one another, reinforcing or attenuating their signals. Together, they generated the bewildering intricacy necessary for a cell to build a constellation of other cells out of the same genes, and for the cells to add “memories” to their genomes and transmit these memories to their progeny. “There’s an epigenetic code, just like there’s a genetic code,” Allis said. “There are codes to make parts of the genome more active, and codes to make them inactive.”

By ‘epigenetic code’ the author seems to mean specific arrays of nucleosome modifications, imparted over time and cell divisions, marking genes for expression.  This idea has been tested in many experiments and has been found not to hold.

….. and more


Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP

I hope that this piece brings greater clarity to the discussion.  I have heard the use of the term “epigenetics” for over a decade.  The term was never so clear.  I think that the New Yorker article was a reasonable article for the intended audience.  It was not intended to clarify debates about a mechanism for epigenetic based changes in evolutionary science.  I think it actually punctures the “classic model” of the cell depending only on double stranded DNA and transcription, which deflates our concept of the living cell.  The concept of epigenetics was never really formulated as far as I have seen, and I have done serious work in enzymology and proteins at a time that we did not have the technology that exists today.  I have considered with the critics that protein folding, protein misfolding, protein interactions with proximity of polar and nonpolar groups, and the regulatory role of microRNAs that are not involved in translation, and the evolving concept of what is “dark (noncoding) DNA” lend credence to the complexity of this discussion.  Even more interesting is the fact that enzymes (and isoforms of enzymes) have a huge role in cellular metabolic differences and in the function of metabolic pathways.  What is less understood is the extremely fast reactions involved in these cellular reactions.  These reactions are in my view critical drivers.  This is brought out by Erwin Schroedinger in the book What is Life? which infers that there can be no mathematical expression of life processes.




Read Full Post »

Chemotherapy Benefit in Early Breast Cancer Patients

Larry H Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Agendia’s MammaPrint® First and Only Genomic Assay to Receive Level 1A Clinical Utility Evidence for Chemotherapy Benefit in Early Breast Cancer Patients

  • Clinical high-risk patients with a low-risk MammaPrint® result, including 48 percent node-positive, had five-year distant metastasis-free survival rate in excess of 94 percent, whether randomized to receive adjuvant chemotherapy or not
  • MammaPrint could change clinical practice by substantially de-escalating the use of adjuvant chemotherapy and sparing many patients an aggressive treatment they will not benefit from
  • Forty-six percent overall reduction in chemotherapy prescription among clinically high-risk patients

April 19, 2016 / B3C newswire / Agendia, Inc., together with the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC) and Breast International Group (BIG), announced results from the initial analysis of the primary objective of the Microarray In Node-negative (and 1 to 3 positive lymph node) Disease may Avoid ChemoTherapy (MINDACT) study at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2016 in New Orleans, LA.

Using the company’s MammaPrint® assay, patients with early-stage breast cancer who were considered at high risk for disease recurrence based on clinical and biological criteria had a distant metastasis-free survival at five years in excess of 94 percent.The MammaPrint test—the first and only genomic assay with FDA 510(k) clearance for use in risk assessment for women of all ages with early stage breast cancer—identified a large group of patients for whom five-year distant metastasis–free survival was equally good whether or not they received adjuvant chemotherapy (chemotherapy given post-surgery).

“The MINDACT trial design is the optimal way to prove clinical utility of a genomic assay,” said Prof. Laura van ’t Veer, CRO at Agendia, Leader, Breast Oncology Program, and Director, Applied Genomics at UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. “It gives the level 1A clinical evidence (prospective, randomized and controlled) that empowers physicians to clearly and confidently know when chemotherapy is part of optimal early-stage breast cancer therapy.  In this trial, MammaPrint (70-gene assay) was compared to the standard of care physicians use today, to decide what is the best treatment option for an early-stage breast cancer patient.”

The MINDACT trial is the first prospective randomized controlled clinical trial of a breast cancer recurrence genomic assay with level 1A clinical evidence and the first prospective translational research study of this magnitude in breast cancer to report the results of its primary objective.

Among the 3,356 patients enrolled in the MINDACT trial, who were categorized as having a high risk of breast cancer recurrence based on common clinical and pathological criteria (C-high), the MammaPrint assay reduced the chemotherapy treatment prescription by 46 percent.Using the 70-gene assay, MammaPrint, 48 percent of lymph-node positive breast cancer patients considered clinically high-risk (Clinical-high) and genomic low-risk (MammaPrint-low) had an excellent distant metastasis-free survival at five years in excess of 94 percent.

“Traditionally, physicians have relied on clinical-pathological factors such as age, tumor size, tumor grade, lymph node involvement, and hormone receptor status to make breast cancer treatment decisions,” said Massimo Cristofanilli, MD, Associate Director of Translational Research and Precision Medicine at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, Northwestern University in Chicago. “These findings provide level 1A clinical utility evidence by demonstrating that the detection of low-risk of distant recurrence reported by the MammaPrint test can be safely used in the management of thousands of women by identifying those who can be spared from a toxic and unnecessary treatment.”

MINDACT is a randomized phase III trial that investigates the clinical utility of MammaPrint, when compared (or – “used in conjunction with”) to the standard clinical pathological criteria, for the selection of patients unlikely to benefit from adjuvant chemotherapy. From 2007 to 2011, 6,693 women who had undergone surgery for early-stage breast cancer enrolled in the trial (111 centers in nine countries). Participants were categorized as low or high risk for tumor recurrence in two ways: first, through analysis of tumor tissue using MammaPrint at a central location in Amsterdam; and second, using Adjuvant! Online, a tool that calculates risk of breast cancer recurrence based on common clinical and biological criteria.

Patients characterized in both clinical and genomic assessments as “low- risk” are spared chemotherapy, while patients characterized as “high- risk” are advised chemotherapy. Those with conflicting results are randomized to use either clinical or genomic risk (MammaPrint) evaluation to decide on chemotherapy treatment.

The MINDACT trial is managed and sponsored by the EORTC as part of an extensive and complex partnership in collaboration with Agendia and BIG, and many other academic and commercial partners, as well as patient advocates.

“These MINDACT trial results are a testament that the science of the MammaPrint test is the most robust in the genomic breast recurrence assay market.  Agendia will continue to collaborate with pharmaceutical companies, leading cancer centers and academic groups on additional clinical research and in the pursuit of bringing more effective, individualized treatments within reach of cancer patients,” said Mark Straley, Chief Executive Officer at Agendia. “We value the partnership with the EORTC and BIG and it’s a great honor to share this critical milestone.”

Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women worldwide(1). In 2012, there were nearly 1.7 million new breast cancer cases among women worldwide, accounting for 25 percent of all new cancer cases in women(2).

Read Full Post »

Cellular switch molecule for sperm motility control: a novel target for male contraception and infertility treatments

Reporter and Curator: Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.


Researchers have discovered the cellular switch that boosts the activity of sperm cells so that they can travel to the egg.  The finding may lead to new options for male contraception as well as treatments for infertility resulting from problems with sperm mobility.

Inside the male reproductive tract, mature sperm are capable of limited movement. This limited movement, however, is not enough to propel them toward the egg when they enter the female reproductive tract. To begin their journey, they must first be activated by the hormone progesterone, which is released by the egg.

The researchers reported that the molecule to which progesterone must bind is the enzyme alpha/beta hydrolase domain containing protein 2 (ABHD2), found in the sperm cell’s outer membrane. Similarly, strategies to bypass or enhance the enzyme might provide therapies for treating infertility resulting from sperm that lack movement capability.

Before a sperm can transition to the hyper-active phase, calcium must pass through the cell’s outer membrane and enter the flagella, the tail-like appendage the cell uses to propel itself. The sperm protein known as CatSper joins with similar proteins in the flagella to allow the entry of calcium.

When the researchers undertook the current study, it was not known whether progesterone interacted directly with CatSper to trigger the calcium influx, or acted on some other molecule (which, in turn, acted on CatSper). Before treating sperm with progesterone, the researchers exposed them to a chemical that inhibits a particular class of enzymes that they believed could include the candidate molecule that acted on CatSper. The hunch proved correct: the treated cells remained inactive after progesterone exposure, indicating that CatSper was not directly involved.

Working with modified progesterone, the researchers eventually isolated ABHD2 from the sperm tails. When the researchers inactivated ABHD2, exposure to progesterone failed to activate the sperm cells, confirming that ABHD2 is the molecular target for progesterone.

All of the technical terminology aside, this means that the researchers have pinned down the cellular switch that boosts the sperm along to the egg, so by blocking the ABHD2 activity, new male birth control methods could be on the way. Conversely, enhancing the enzyme could lead to new treatments for male infertility.

It will be interesting to see how this discovery impacts future research concerning male birth control and infertility treatments. Perhaps it’s the missing piece of information that will quickly yield an effective new male contraception option.




Read Full Post »

Brain Biobank and studies of disease structure correlates

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Unveiling Psychiatric Diseases

Researchers create neuropsychiatric cellular biobank

Image: iStock/mstroz
Image: iStock/mstroz
Researchers from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital have completed the first stage of an important collaboration aimed at understanding the intricate variables of neuropsychiatric disease—something that currently eludes clinicians and scientists.

The research team, led by Isaac Kohane at HMS and Roy Perlis at Mass General, has created a neuropsychiatric cellular biobank—one of the largest in the world.

It contains induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, derived from skin cells taken from 100 people with neuropsychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, and from 50 people without neuropsychiatric illness.

In addition, a detailed profile of each patient, obtained from hours of in-person assessment as well as from electronic medical records, is matched to each cell sample.

As a result, the scientific community can now for the first time access cells representing a broad swath of neuropsychiatric illness. This enables researchers to correlate molecular data with clinical information in areas such as variability of drug reactions between patients. The ultimate goal is to help treat, with greater precision, conditions that often elude effective management.

The cell collection and generation was led by investigators at Mass General, who in collaboration with Kohane and his team are working to characterize the cell lines at a molecular level. The cell repository, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is housed at Rutgers University.

“This biobank, in its current form, is only the beginning,” said Perlis, director of the MGH Psychiatry Center for Experimental Drugs and Diagnostics and HMS associate professor of psychiatry. “By next year we’ll have cells from a total of four hundred patients, with additional clinical detail and additional cell types that we will share with investigators.”

A current major limitation to understanding brain diseases is the inability to access brain biopsies on living patients. As a result, researchers typically study blood cells from patients or examine post-mortem tissue. This is in stark contrast with diseases such as cancer, for which there are many existing repositories of highly characterized cells from patients.

The new biobank offers a way to push beyond this limitation.


A Big Step Forward

While the biobank is already a boon to the scientific community, researchers at MGH and the HMS Department of Biomedical Informatics will be adding additional layers of molecular data to all of the cell samples. This information will include whole genome sequencing and transcriptomic and epigenetic profiling of brain cells made from the stem cell lines.

Collaborators in the HMS Department of Neurobiology, led by Michael Greenberg, department chair and Nathan Marsh Pusey Professor of Neurobiology,  will also work to examine characteristics of other types of neurons derived from these stem cells.

“This can potentially alter the entire way we look at and diagnose many neuropsychiatric conditions,” said Perlis.

One example may be to understand how the cellular responses to medication correspond to the patient’s documented responses, comparing in vitro with in vivo. “This would be a big step forward in bringing precision medicine to psychiatry,” Perlis said.

“It’s important to recall that in the field of genomics, we didn’t find interesting connections to disease until we had large enough samples to really investigate these complex conditions,” said Kohane, chair of the HMS Department of Biomedical Informatics.

“Our hypothesis is that here we will require far fewer patients,” he said. “By measuring the molecular functioning of the cells of each patient rather than only their genetic risk, and combining that all that’s known of these people in terms of treatment response and cognitive function, we will discover a great deal of valuable information about these conditions.”

Added Perlis, “In the early days of genetics, there were frequent false positives because we were studying so few people. We’re hoping to avoid the same problem in making cellular models, by ensuring that we have a sufficient number of cell lines to be confident in reporting differences between patient groups.”

The generation of stem cell lines and characterization of patients and brain cell lines is funded jointly by the the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Human Genome Research Institute and a grant from the Centers of Excellence in Genomic Science program.


On C.T.E. and Athletes, Science Remains in Its Infancy

Se Hoon ChoiYoung Hye KimMatthias Hebisch, et al.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, characterized by two pathological hallmarks: amyloid-β plaques and neurofibrillary tangles1. The amyloid hypothesis of Alzheimer’s disease posits that the excessive accumulation of amyloid-β peptide leads to neurofibrillary tangles composed of aggregated hyperphosphorylated tau2, 3. However, to date, no single disease model has serially linked these two pathological events using human neuronal cells. Mouse models with familial Alzheimer’s disease (FAD) mutations exhibit amyloid-β-induced synaptic and memory deficits but they do not fully recapitulate other key pathological events of Alzheimer’s disease, including distinct neurofibrillary tangle pathology4, 5. Human neurons derived from Alzheimer’s disease patients have shown elevated levels of toxic amyloid-β species and phosphorylated tau but did not demonstrate amyloid-β plaques or neurofibrillary tangles6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. Here we report that FAD mutations in β-amyloid precursor protein and presenilin 1 are able to induce robust extracellular deposition of amyloid-β, including amyloid-β plaques, in a human neural stem-cell-derived three-dimensional (3D) culture system. More importantly, the 3D-differentiated neuronal cells expressing FAD mutations exhibited high levels of detergent-resistant, silver-positive aggregates of phosphorylated tau in the soma and neurites, as well as filamentous tau, as detected by immunoelectron microscopy. Inhibition of amyloid-β generation with β- or γ-secretase inhibitors not only decreased amyloid-β pathology, but also attenuated tauopathy. We also found that glycogen synthase kinase 3 (GSK3) regulated amyloid-β-mediated tau phosphorylation. We have successfully recapitulated amyloid-β and tau pathology in a single 3D human neural cell culture system. Our unique strategy for recapitulating Alzheimer’s disease pathology in a 3D neural cell culture model should also serve to facilitate the development of more precise human neural cell models of other neurodegenerative disorders.



Figure 2: Robust increases of extracellular amyloid-β deposits in 3D-differentiated hNPCs with FAD mutations.close

Robust increases of extracellular amyloid-[bgr] deposits in 3D-differentiated hNPCs with FAD mutations.

a, Thin-layer 3D culture protocol. HC, histochemistry; IF, immunofluorescence; IHC, immunohistochemistry. b, Amyloid-β deposits in 6-week differentiated control and FAD ReN cells in 3D Matrigel (green, GFP; blue, 3D6; scale bar, …


Stem Cell-Based Spinal Cord Repair Enables Robust Corticospinal Regeneration


Novel use of EPR spectroscopy to study in vivo protein structure


α-synuclein is a protein found abundantly throughout the brain. It is present mainly at the neuron ends where it is thought to play a role in ensuring the supply of synaptic vesicles in presynaptic terminals, which are required for the release of neurotransmitters to relay signals between neurons. It is critical for normal brain function.

However, α-synuclein is also the primary protein component of the cerebral amyloid deposits characteristic of Parkinson’s disease and its precursor is found in the amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s disease. Although α-synuclein is present in all areas of the brain, these disease-state amyloid plaques only arise in distinct areas.

Alpha-synuclein protein. May play role in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.  © /

Imaging of isolated samples of α-synuclein in vitro indicate that it does not have the precise 3D folded structure usually associated with proteins. It is therefore classed as an intrinsically disordered protein. However, it was not known whether the protein also lacked a precise structure in vivo.

There have been reports that it can form helical tetramers. Since the 3D structure of a biological protein is usually precisely matched to the specific function it performs, knowing the structure of α-synuclein within a living cell will help elucidate its role and may also improve understanding of the disease states with which it is associated.

If α-synuclein remains disordered in vivo, it may be possible for the protein to achieve different structures, and have different properties, depending on its surroundings.

Techniques for determining protein structure

It has long been known that elucidating the structure of a protein at an atomic level is fundamental for understanding its normal function and behavior. Furthermore, such knowledge can also facilitate the development of targeted drug treatments. Unfortunately, observing the atomic structure of a protein in vivo is not straightforward.

X-ray diffraction is the technique usually adopted for visualizing structures at atomic resolution, but this requires crystals of the molecule to be produced and this cannot be done without separating the molecules of interest from their natural environment. Such processes can modify the protein from its usual state and, particularly with complex structures, such effects are difficult to predict.

The development of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy improved the situation by making it possible for molecules to be analyzed under in vivo conditions, i.e. same pH, temperature and ionic concentration.

More recently, increases in the sensitivity of NMR and the use of isotope labelling have enabled determinations of the atomic level structure and dynamics of proteins to be determined within living cells1. NMR has been used to determine the structure of a bacterial protein within living cells2 but it is difficult to achieve sufficient quantities of the required protein within mammalian cells and to keep the cells alive for NMR imaging to be conducted.

Electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectroscopy for determining protein structure

Recently, researchers have managed to overcome these obstacles by using in-cell NMR and electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectroscopy. EPR spectroscopy is a technique that is similar to NMR spectroscopy in that it is based on the measurement and interpretation of the energy differences between excited and relaxed molecular states.

In EPR spectroscopy it is electrons that are excited, whereas in NMR signals are created through the spinning of atomic nuclei. EPR was developed to measure radicals and metal complexes, but has also been utilized to study the dynamic organization of lipids in biological membranes3.

EPR has now been used for the first time in protein structure investigations and has provided atomic-resolution information on the structure of α-synuclein in living mammalians4,5.

Bacterial forms of the α-synuclein protein labelled with 15N isotopes were introduced into five types of mammalian cell using electroporation. Concentrations of α-synuclein close to those found in vivo were achieved and the 15N isotopes allowed the protein to be clearly defined from other cellular components by NMR. The conformation of the protein was then determined using electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR).

The results showed that within living mammalian cells α-synuclein remains as a disordered and highly dynamic monomer. Different intracellular environments did not induce major conformational changes.


The novel use of EPR spectroscopy has resolved the mystery surrounding the in vivo conformation of α-synuclein. It showed that α-synuclein maintains its disordered monomeric form under physiological cell conditions. It has been demonstrated for the first time that even in crowded intracellular environments α-synuclein does not form oligomers, showing that intrinsic structural disorder can be sustained within mammalian cells.


  1. Freedberg DI and Selenko P. Live cell NMR Annu. Rev. Biophys. 2014;43:171–192.
  2. Sakakibara D, et al. Protein structure determination in living cells by in-cell NMR spectroscopy. Nature 2009;458:102–105.
  3. Yashroy RC. Magnetic resonance studies of dynamic organisation of lipids in chloroplast membranes. Journal of Biosciences 1990;15(4):281.
  4. Alderson TA and Bax AD. Parkinson’s Disease. Disorder in the court. Nature 2016; doi:10.1038/nature16871.
  5. Theillet FX, et al. Structural disorder of monomeric α-synuclein persists in mammalian cells. Nature 2016; doi:10.1038/nature16531.


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »