Posts Tagged ‘Whitehead Institute’

War on Cancer Needs to Refocus to Stay Ahead of Disease Says Cancer Expert

War on Cancer Needs to Refocus to Stay Ahead of Disease Says Cancer Expert

Writer, Curator: Stephen J. Williams, Ph.D.

Is one of the world’s most prominent cancer researchers throwing in the towel on the War On Cancer? Not throwing in the towel, just reminding us that cancer is more complex than just a genetic disease, and in the process, giving kudos to those researchers who focus on non-genetic aspects of the disease (see Dr. Larry Bernstein’s article Is the Warburg Effect the Cause or the Effect of Cancer: A 21st Century View?).


National Public Radio (NPR) has been conducting an interview series with MIT cancer biology pioneer, founding member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and National Academy of Science member and National Medal of Science awardee Robert A. Weinberg, Ph.D., who co-discovered one of the first human oncogenes (Ras)[1], isolation of first tumor suppressor (Rb)[2], and first (with Dr. Bill Hahn) proved that cells could become tumorigenic after discrete genetic lesions[3].   In the latest NPR piece, Why The War On Cancer Hasn’t Been Won (seen on NPR’s blog by Richard Harris), Dr. Weinberg discusses a comment in an essay he wrote in the journal Cell[4], basically that, in recent years, cancer research may have focused too much on the genetic basis of cancer at the expense of multifaceted etiology of cancer, including the roles of metabolism, immunity, and physiology. Cancer is the second most cause of medically related deaths in the developed world. However, concerted efforts among most developed nations to eradicate the disease, such as increased government funding for cancer research and a mandated ‘war on cancer’ in the mid 70’s has translated into remarkable improvements in diagnosis, early detection, and cancer survival rates for many individual cancer. For example, survival rate for breast and colon cancer have improved dramatically over the last 40 years. In the UK, overall median survival times have improved from one year in 1972 to 5.8 years for patients diagnosed in 2007. In the US, the overall 5 year survival improved from 50% for all adult cancers and 62% for childhood cancer in 1972 to 68% and childhood cancer rate improved to 82% in 2007. However, for some cancers, including lung, brain, pancreatic and ovarian cancer, there has been little improvement in survival rates since the “war on cancer” has started.

(Other NPR interviews with Dr. Weinberg include How Does Cancer Spread Through The Body?)

As Weinberg said, in the 1950s, medical researchers saw cancer as “an extremely complicated process that needed to be described in hundreds, if not thousands of different ways,”. Then scientists tried to find a unifying principle, first focusing on viruses as the cause of cancer (for example rous sarcoma virus and read Dr. Gallo’s book on his early research on cancer, virology, and HIV in Virus Hunting: AIDS, Cancer & the Human Retrovirus: A Story of Scientific Discovery).

However (as the blog article goes on) “that idea was replaced by the notion that cancer is all about wayward genes.”

“The thought, at least in the early 1980s, was that were a small number of these mutant, cancer-causing oncogenes, and therefore that one could understand a whole disparate group of cancers simply by studying these mutant genes that seemed to be present in many of them,” Weinberg says. “And this gave the notion, the illusion over the ensuing years, that we would be able to understand the laws of cancer formation the way we understand, with some simplicity, the laws of physics, for example.”

According to Weinberg, this gene-directed unifying theory has given way as recent evidences point back once again to a multi-faceted view of cancer etiology.

But this is not a revolutionary or conflicting idea for Dr. Weinberg, being a recipient of the 2007 Otto Warburg Medal and focusing his latest research on complex systems such as angiogenesis, cell migration, and epithelial-stromal interactions.

In fact, it was both Dr. Weinberg and Dr. Bill Hanahan who formulated eight governing principles or Hallmarks of cancer:

  1. Maintaining Proliferative Signals
  2. Avoiding Immune Destruction
  3. Evading Growth Suppressors
  4. Resisting Cell Death
  5. Becoming Immortal
  6. Angiogenesis
  7. Deregulating Cellular Energy
  8. Activating Invasion and Metastasis

Taken together, these hallmarks represent the common features that tumors have, and may involve genetic or non-genetic (epigenetic) lesions … a multi-modal view of cancer that spans over time and across disciplines. As reviewed by both Dr. Larry Bernstein and me in the e-book Volume One: Cancer Biology and Genomics for Disease Diagnosis, each scientific discipline, whether the pharmacologist, toxicologist, virologist, molecular biologist, physiologist, or cell biologist has contributed greatly to our total understanding of this disease, each from their own unique perspective based on their discipline. This leads to a “multi-modal” view on cancer etiology and diagnosis, treatment. Many of the improvements in survival rates are a direct result of the massive increase in the knowledge of tumor biology obtained through ardent basic research. Breakthrough discoveries regarding oncogenes, cancer cell signaling, survival, and regulated death mechanisms, tumor immunology, genetics and molecular biology, biomarker research, and now nanotechnology and imaging, have directly led to the advances we now we in early detection, chemotherapy, personalized medicine, as well as new therapeutic modalities such as cancer vaccines and immunotherapies and combination chemotherapies. Molecular and personalized therapies such as trastuzumab and aromatase inhibitors for breast cancer, imatnib for CML and GIST related tumors, bevacizumab for advanced colorectal cancer have been a direct result of molecular discoveries into the nature of cancer. This then leads to an interesting question (one to be tackled in another post):

Would shifting focus less on cancer genome and back to cancer biology limit the progress we’ve made in personalized medicine?


In a 2012 post Genomics And Targets For The Treatment Of Cancer: Is Our New World Turning Into “Pharmageddon” Or Are We On The Threshold Of Great Discoveries? Dr. Leonard Lichtenfield, MD, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the ACS, comments on issues regarding the changes which genomics and personalized strategy has on oncology drug development. As he notes, in the past, chemotherapy development was sort of ‘hit or miss’ and the dream and promise of genomics suggested an era of targeted therapy, where drug development was more ‘rational’ and targets were easily identifiable.

To quote his post

That was the dream, and there have been some successes–even apparent cures or long term control–with the used of targeted medicines with biologic drugs such as Gleevec®, Herceptin® and Avastin®. But I think it is fair to say that the progress and the impact hasn’t been quite what we thought it would be. Cancer has proven a wily foe, and every time we get answers to questions what we usually get are more questions that need more answers. The complexity of the cancer cell is enormous, and its adaptability and the genetic heterogeneity of even primary cancers (as recently reported in a research paper in the New England Journal of Medicine) has been surprising, if not (realistically) unexpected.


Indeed the complexity of a given patient’s cancer (especially solid tumors) with regard to its genetic and mutation landscape (heterogeneity) [please see post with interview with Dr. Swanton on tumor heterogeneity] has been at the forefront of many clinicians minds [see comments within the related post as well as notes from recent personalized medicine conferences which were covered live on this site including the PMWC15 and Harvard Personalized Medicine conference this past fall].

In addition, Dr. Lichtenfeld makes some interesting observations including:

  • A “pharmageddon” where drug development risks/costs exceed the reward so drug developers keep their ‘wallets shut’. For example even for targeted therapies it takes $12 billion US to develop a drug versus $2 billion years ago
  • Drugs are still drugs and failure in clinical trials is still a huge risk
  • “Eroom’s Law” (like “Moore’s Law” but opposite effect) – increasing costs with decreasing success
  • Limited market for drugs targeted to a select mutant; what he called “slice and dice”

The pros and cons of focusing solely on targeted therapeutic drug development versus using a systems biology approach was discussed at the 2013 Institute of Medicine’s national Cancer Policy Summit.

  • Andrea Califano, PhD – Precision Medicine predictions based on statistical associations where systems biology predictions based on a physical regulatory model
  • Spyro Mousses, PhD – open biomedical knowledge and private patient data should be combined to form systems oncology clearinghouse to form evolving network, linking drugs, genomic data, and evolving multiscalar models
  • Razelle Kurzrock, MD – What if every patient with metastatic disease is genomically unique? Problem with model of smaller trials (so-called N=1 studies) of genetically similar disease: drugs may not be easily acquired or re-purposed, and greater regulatory burdens

So, discoveries of oncogenes, tumor suppressors, mutant variants, high-end sequencing, and the genomics and bioinformatic era may have led to advent of targeted chemotherapies with genetically well-defined patient populations, a different focus in chemotherapy development

… but as long as we have the conversation open I have no fear of myopia within the field, and multiple viewpoints on origins and therapeutic strategies will continue to develop for years to come.


  1. Parada LF, Tabin CJ, Shih C, Weinberg RA: Human EJ bladder carcinoma oncogene is homologue of Harvey sarcoma virus ras gene. Nature 1982, 297(5866):474-478.
  2. Friend SH, Bernards R, Rogelj S, Weinberg RA, Rapaport JM, Albert DM, Dryja TP: A human DNA segment with properties of the gene that predisposes to retinoblastoma and osteosarcoma. Nature 1986, 323(6089):643-646.
  3. Hahn WC, Counter CM, Lundberg AS, Beijersbergen RL, Brooks MW, Weinberg RA: Creation of human tumour cells with defined genetic elements. Nature 1999, 400(6743):464-468.
  4. Weinberg RA: Coming full circle-from endless complexity to simplicity and back again. Cell 2014, 157(1):267-271.


Other posts on this site on The War on Cancer and Origins of Cancer include:


2013 Perspective on “War on Cancer” on December 23, 1971

Is the Warburg Effect the Cause or the Effect of Cancer: A 21st Century View?

World facing cancer ‘tidal wave’, warns WHO

2013 American Cancer Research Association Award for Outstanding Achievement in Chemistry in Cancer Research: Professor Alexander Levitzki

Genomics and Metabolomics Advances in Cancer

The Changing Economics of Cancer Medicine: Causes for the Vanishing of Independent Oncology Groups in the US

Cancer Research Pioneer, after 71 years of Immunology Lab Research, Herman Eisen, MD, MIT Professor Emeritus of Biology, dies at 96

My Cancer Genome from Vanderbilt University: Matching Tumor Mutations to Therapies & Clinical Trials

Articles on Cancer-Related Topic in Scientific Journal

Issues in Personalized Medicine in Cancer: Intratumor Heterogeneity and Branched Evolution Revealed by Multiregion Sequencing

Issues in Personalized Medicine: Discussions of Intratumor Heterogeneity from the Oncology Pharma forum on LinkedIn

Introduction – The Evolution of Cancer Therapy and Cancer Research: How We Got Here?


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Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN


Nature Genetics (2013) doi:10.1038/ng.2705

Independent specialization of the human and mouse X chromosomes for the male germ line

  1. Whitehead Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

    • Jacob L Mueller,
    • Helen Skaletsky,
    • Laura G Brown,
    • Sara Zaghlul &
    • David C Page
  2. Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

    • Helen Skaletsky,
    • Laura G Brown &
    • David C Page
  3. The Genome Institute, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, Missouri, USA.

    • Susan Rock,
    • Tina Graves,
    • Wesley C Warren &
    • Richard K Wilson
  4. The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Wellcome Trust Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridge, UK.

    • Katherine Auger
  5. Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

    • David C Page


J.L.M., H.S., W.C.W., R.K.W. and D.C.P. planned the project. J.L.M. and L.G.B. performed BAC mapping. J.L.M. performed RNA deep sequencing. T.G., S.R., K.A. and S.Z. were responsible for finished BAC sequencing. J.L.M. and H.S. performed sequence analyses. J.L.M. and D.C.P. wrote the manuscript.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to:

Nature Genetics (2013) doi:10.1038/ng.2705


 11 February 2013 Accepted

20 June 2013 Published online

21 July 2013

We compared the human and mouse X chromosomes to systematically test Ohno’s law, which states that the gene content of X chromosomes is conserved across placental mammals1. First, we improved the accuracy of the human X-chromosome reference sequence through single-haplotype sequencing of ampliconic regions. The new sequence closed gaps in the reference sequence, corrected previously misassembled regions and identified new palindromic amplicons. Our subsequent analysis led us to conclude that the evolution of human and mouse X chromosomes was bimodal. In accord with Ohno’s law, 94–95% of X-linked single-copy genes are shared by humans and mice; most are expressed in both sexes. Notably, most X-ampliconic genes are exceptions to Ohno’s law: only 31% of human and 22% of mouse X-ampliconic genes had orthologs in the other species. X-ampliconic genes are expressed predominantly in testicular germ cells, and many were independently acquired since divergence from the common ancestor of humans and mice, specializing portions of their X chromosomes for sperm production.

Refined X Chromosome Assembly Hints at Possible Role in Sperm Production

July 22, 2013

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – A US and UK team that delved into previously untapped stretches of sequence on the mammalian X chromosome has uncovered clues that sequences on the female sex chromosome may play a previously unappreciated role in sperm production.

The work, published online yesterday in Nature Genetics, also indicated such portions of the X chromosome may be prone to genetic changes that are more rapid than those described over other, better-characterized X chromosome sequences.

“We view this as the double life of the X chromosome,” senior author David Page, director of the Whitehead Institute, said in a statement.

“[T]he story of the X has been the story of X-linked recessive diseases, such as color blindness, hemophilia, and Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy,” he said. “But there’s another side to the X, a side that is rapidly evolving and seems to be attuned to the reproductive needs of males.”

As part of a mouse and human X chromosome comparison intended to assess the sex chromosome’s similarities across placental mammals, Page and his colleagues used a technique called single-haplotype iterative mapping and sequencing, or SHIMS, to scrutinize human X chromosome sequence and structure in more detail than was available previously.

With the refined human X chromosome assembly and existing mouse data, the team did see cross-mammal conservation for many X-linked genes, particularly those present in single copies. But that was not the case for a few hundred species-specific genes, many of which fell in segmentally duplicated, or “ampliconic,” parts of the X chromosome. Moreover, those genes were prone to expression by germ cells in male testes tissue, pointing to a potential role in sperm production-related processes.

“X-ampliconic genes are expressed predominantly in testicular germ cells,” the study authors noted, “and many were independently acquired since divergence from the common ancestor of humans and mice, specializing portions of their X chromosomes for sperm production.”

The work was part of a larger effort to look at a theory known as Ohno’s law, which predicts extensive X-linked gene similarities from one placental mammal to the next, Page and company turned to the same SHIMS method they used to get a more comprehensive view of the Y chromosome for previous studies.

Using that sequencing method, the group resequenced portions of the human X chromosome, originally assembled from a mishmash of sequence from the 16 or more individuals whose DNA was used to sequence the human X chromosome reference.

Their goal: to track down sections of segmental duplication, called ampliconic regions, that may have been missed or assembled incorrectly in the mosaic human X chromosome sequence.

“Ampliconic regions assembled from multiple haplotypes may have expansions, contractions, or inversions that do not accurately reflect the structure of any extant haplotype,” the study’s authors explained.

“To thoroughly test Ohno’s law,” they wrote, “we constructed a more accurate assembly of the human X chromosome’s ampliconic regions to compare the gene contents of the human and mouse X chromosomes.”

The team focused their attention on 29 predicted ampliconic regions of the human X chromosome, using SHIMS to generate millions of bases of non-overlapping X chromosome sequence.

With that sequence in hand, they went on to refine the human X chromosome assembly before comparing it with the reference sequence for the mouse X chromosome, which already represented just one mouse haplotype.

The analysis indicated that 144 of the genes on the human X chromosome don’t have orthologs in mice, while 197 X-linked mouse genes lack human orthologs.

A minority of those species-specific genes arose as the result of gene duplication or gene loss events since the human and mouse lineages split from one around 80 million years ago, researchers determined. But most appear to have resulted from retrotransposition or transposition events involving sequences from autosomal chromosomes.

And when the team used RNA sequencing and existing gene expression data to look at which mouse and human tissues flip on particular genes, it found that many of the species-specific genes on the X chromosome showed preferential expression in testicular cells known for their role in sperm production.

Based on such findings, the study’s authors concluded that “the gene repertoires of the human and mouse X chromosomes are products of two complementary evolutionary processes: conservation of single-copy genes that serve in functions shared by the sexes and ongoing gene acquisition, usually involving the formation of amplicons, which leads to the differentiation and specialization of X chromosomes for functions in male gametogenesis.”

The group plans to incorporate results of its SHIMS-based assembly into the X chromosome portion of the human reference genome.

“This is a collection of genes that has largely eluded medical geneticists,” the study’s first author Jacob Mueller, a post-doctoral researcher in Page’s Whitehead lab, said in a statement. “Now that we’re confident of the assembly and gene content of these highly repetitive regions on the X chromosome, we can start to dissect their biological significance.”

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Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN


Researchers have identified a transcription factor, known as ZEB1, that is capable of converting non-aggressive basal-type cancer cells into highly malignant, tumor-forming cancer stem cells. [Press release from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research discussing online prepublication in Cell]

Whitehead Institute is a world-renowned non-profit research institution dedicated to improving human health through basic biomedical research.
Wholly independent in its governance, finances, and research programs, Whitehead shares a close affiliation with Massachusetts Institute of Technology
through its faculty, who hold joint MIT appointments.

Cells from basal cancers are able to switch relatively easily into cancer stem cell (CSC) state, unlike luminal breast cancer cells, which tend to remain in the non-CSC state. The gene ZEB1 is critical for this conversion. The difference in ZEB1’s effects is due to the way the gene is marked in the two types of cancers. In luminal breast cancer cells, the ZEB1 gene is occupied with modifications that shut it down. But in basal breast cancer cells, ZEB1’s state is more tenuous, with repressing and activating markers coexisting on the gene. When these cells are exposed to certain signals, including those from TGFß, the repressive marks are removed and ZEB1 is expressed, thereby converting the basal non-CSCs into CSCs.


Diagram of the mechanism cancer cells use to convert into cancer stem cells

Cells from basal cancers are able to switch relatively easily into cancer stem cell (CSC) state, unlike luminal breast cancer cells, which tend to remain in the non-CSC state. The gene ZEB1 is critical for this conversion. The difference in ZEB1’s effects is due to the way the gene is marked in the two types of cancers. In luminal breast cancer cells, the ZEB1 gene is occupied with modifications that shut it down. But in basal breast cancer cells, ZEB1’s state is more tenuous, with repressing and activating markers coexisting on the gene. When these cells are exposed to certain signals, including those from TGFß, the repressive marks are removed and ZEB1 is expressed, thereby converting the basal non-CSCs into CSCs.

JULY 3, 2013


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – In a discovery that sheds new light on the aggressiveness of certain breast cancers, Whitehead Institute researchers have identified a transcription factor, known as ZEB1, that is capable of converting non-aggressive basal-type cancer cells into highly malignant, tumor-forming cancer stem cells (CSCs). Intriguingly, luminal breast cancer cells, which are associated with a much better clinical prognosis, carry this gene in a state in which it seems to be permanently shut down.

The researchers, whose findings are published this week in the journal Cell, report that the ZEB1 gene is held in a poised state in basal non-CSCs, such that it can readily respond to environmental cues that consequently drive those non-CSCs into the dangerous CSC state. Basal-type breast carcinoma is a highly aggressive form of breast cancer. According to a 2011 epidemiological study, the 5-year survival rate for patients with basal breast cancer is 76%, compared with a roughly 90% 5-year survival rate among patients with other forms of breast cancer.

“We may have found a root source, maybe the root source, of what ultimately determines the destiny of breast cancer cells—their future benign or aggressive clinical behavior,” says Whitehead Founding Member Robert Weinberg, who is also a professor of biology at MIT and Director of the MIT/Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology.

Transcription factors are genes that control the expression of other genes, and therefore have a significant impact on cell activities. In the case of ZEB1, it has an important role in the so-called epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT), during which epithelial cells acquire the traits of mesenchymal cells. Unlike the tightly-packed epithelial cells that stick to one another, mesenchymal cells are loose and free to move around a tissue. Previous work in the Weinberg lab showed that adult cancer cells passing through an EMT are able to self-renew and to seed new tumors with high efficiency, hallmark traits of CSCs.

Other earlier work led by Christine Chaffer, a postdoctoral researcher in the Weinberg lab, demonstrated that cancer cells are able to spontaneously become CSCs. Now Chaffer and Nemanja Marjanovic have pinpointed ZEB1, a key player in the EMT, as a gene critical for this conversion in breast cancer cells.

Breast cancers are categorized into at least five different subgroups based on their molecular profiles. More broadly these groups can be subdivided into the less aggressive ‘luminal’ subgroup or more aggressive ‘basal’ subgroup. The aggressive basal-type breast cancers often metastasize, seeding new tumors in distant parts of the body. Patients with basal breast cancer generally have a poorer prognosis than those with the less aggressive luminal-type breast cancer.

Chaffer and Marjanovic, a former research assistant in the Weinberg lab, studied non-CSCs from luminal- and basal-type cancers and determined that cells from basal cancers are able to switch relatively easily into CSC state, unlike luminal breast cancer cells, which tend to remain in the non-CSC state.

The scientists determined that the difference in ZEB1’s effects is due to the way the gene is marked in the two types of cancers. In luminal breast cancer cells, the ZEB1 gene is occupied with modifications that shut it down. But in basal breast cancer cells, ZEB1’s state is more tenuous, with repressing and activating markers coexisting on the gene. When these cells are exposed to certain signals, including those from TGFß, the repressive marks are removed and ZEB1 is expressed, thereby converting the basal non-CSCs into CSCs.

So what does this new insight mean for treating basal breast cancer?

“Well, we know that these basal breast cancer cells are very plastic and we need to incorporate that kind of thinking into treatment regimes,” says Chaffer. “As well as targeting cancer stem cells, we also need to think about how we can prevent the non-cancer stem cells from continually replenishing the pool of cancer stem cells. For example, adjuvant therapies that inhibit this type of cell plasticity may be a very effective way to keep metastasis at bay.”

Marjnaovic agrees but cautions that the model may not be applicable for every cancer.

“This is an example of how adaptable cancer cells can be,,” says Marjanovic, who is currently a research assistant at the Broad Institute. “We have yet to determine if ZEB1 plays a similar role in all cancer types, but the idea that cancer cells reside in a poised state that enables them to adapt to changing environments may be a mechanism used by many cancers to increase their aggressiveness.”


This work is supported the Advanced Medical Research Foundation (AMRF), Breast Cancer Research Foundation, and National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants HG002668 and CA146445.

Written by Nicole Giese Rura

* * *

Robert Weinberg’s primary affiliation is with Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, where his laboratory is located and all his research is conducted. He is also a professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Director of the MIT/Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology.

* * *

Full Citation:

“Poised chromatin at the ZEB1 promoter enables breast cancer cell plasticity and enhances tumorigenicity”

Cell, July 3, 2013.

Christine L Chaffer (1*), Nemanja D Marjanovic (1*), Tony Lee (1), George Bell (1), Celina G Kleer (2), Ferenc Reinhardt (1), Ana C D’Alessio (1), Richard A Young (1,3), and Robert A Weinberg (1,4).

1.Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Cambridge, MA 02142, USA

2. University of Michigan Medical School, Department of Pathology, Ann Arbor MI, 48109, USA

3.Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA

4.Ludwig MIT Center for Molecular Oncology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA

*These authors contributed equally to this work.



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