Matt Trau, a professor of chemistry at the University of Queensland, stunned the science world back in December when the prestigious journal Nature Communications published his lab's discovery about a unique property of cancer DNA that could lead to a simple, cheap, and accurate test to detect any type of cancer in under 10 minutes.
No one believed it. I didn't believe it. I thought, "Gosh, okay, maybe it's a fluke."
Trau granted very few interviews in the wake of the news, but he recently opened up to leapsmag about the significance of this promising early research. Here is his story in his own words, as told to Editor-in-Chief Kira Peikoff.
There's been an incredible explosion of knowledge over the past 20 years, particularly since the genome was sequenced. The area of diagnostics has a tremendous amount of promise and has caught our lab's interest. If you catch cancer early, you can improve survival rates to as high as 98 percent, sometimes even now surpassing that.
My lab is interested in devices to improve the trajectory of cancer patients. So, once people get diagnosed, can we get really sophisticated information about the molecular origins of the disease, and can we measure it in real time? And then can we match that with the best treatment and monitor it in real time, too?
I think those approaches, also coupled with immunotherapy, where one dreams of monitoring the immune system simultaneously with the disease progress, will be the future.
But currently, the methodologies for cancer are still pretty old. So, for example, let's talk about biopsies in general. Liquid biopsy just means using a blood test or a urine test, rather than extracting out a piece of solid tissue. Now consider breast cancer. Still, the cutting-edge screening method is mammography or the physical interrogation for lumps. This has had a big impact in terms of early detection and awareness, but it's still primitive compared to interrogating, forensically, blood samples to look at traces of DNA.
Large machines like CAT scans, PET scans, MRIs, are very expensive and very subjective in terms of the operator. They don't look at the root causes of the cancer. Cancer is caused by changes in DNA. These can be changes in the hard drive of the DNA (the genomic changes) or changes in the apps that the DNA are running (the epigenetics and the transcriptomics).
We don't look at that now, even though we have, emerging, all of these technologies to do it, and those technologies are getting so much cheaper. I saw some statistics at a conference just a few months ago that, in the United States, less than 1 percent of cancer patients have their DNA interrogated. That's the current state-of-the-art in the modern medical system.
Professor Matt Trau, a cancer researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia.
Blood, as the highway of the body, is carrying all of this information. Cancer cells, if they are present in the body, are constantly getting turned over. When they die, they release their contents into the blood. Many of these cells end up in the urine and saliva. Having technologies that can forensically scan the highways looking for evidence of cancer is little bit like looking for explosives at the airport. That's very valuable as a security tool.
The trouble is that there are thousands of different types of cancer. Going back to breast cancer, there's at least a dozen different types, probably more, and each of them change the DNA (the hard drive of the disease) and the epigenetics (or the RAM memory). So one of the problems for diagnostics in cancer is to find something that is a signature of all cancers. That's been a really, really, really difficult problem.
Ours was a completely serendipitous discovery. What we found in the lab was this one marker that just kept coming up in all of the types of breast cancers we were studying.
No one believed it. I didn't believe it. I thought, "Gosh, okay, maybe it's a fluke, maybe it works just for breast cancer." So we went on to test it in prostate cancer, which is also many different types of diseases, and it seemed to be working in all of those. We then tested it further in lymphoma. Again, many different types of lymphoma. It worked across all of those. We tested it in gastrointestinal cancer. Again, many different types, and still, it worked, but we were skeptical.
Then we looked at cell lines, which are cells that have come from previous cancer patients, that we grow in the lab, but are used as model experimental systems. We have many of those cell lines, both ones that are cancerous, and ones that are healthy. It was quite remarkable that the marker worked in all of the cancer cell lines and didn't work in the healthy cell lines.
What could possibly be going on?
Well, imagine DNA as a piece of string, that's your hard drive. Epigenetics is like the beads that you put on that string. Those beads you can take on and off as you wish and they control which apps are run, meaning which genetic programs the cell runs. We hypothesized that for cancer, those beads cluster together, rather than being randomly distributed across the string.
Ultimately, I see this as something that would be like a pregnancy test you could take at your doctor's office.
The implications of this are profound. It means that DNA from cancer folds in water into three-dimensional structures that are very different from healthy cells' DNA. It's quite literally the needle in a haystack. Because when you do a liquid biopsy for early detection of cancer, most of the DNA from blood contains a vast abundance of healthy DNA. And that's not of interest. What's of interest is to find the cancerous DNA. That's there only in trace.
Once we figured out what was going on, we could easily set up a system to detect the trace cancerous DNA. It binds to gold nanoparticles in water and changes color. The test takes 10 minutes, and you can detect it by eye. Red indicates cancer and blue doesn't.
We're very, very excited about where we go from here. We're starting to test the test on a greater number of cancers, in thousands of patient samples. We're looking to the scientific community to engage with us, and we're getting a really good response from groups around the world who are supplying more samples to us so we can test this more broadly.
We also are very interested in testing how early can we go with this test. Can we detect cancer through a simple blood test even before there are any symptoms whatsoever? If so, we might be able to convert a cancer diagnosis to something almost as good as a vaccine.
Of course, we have to watch what are called false positives. We don't want to be detecting people as positives when they don't have cancer, and so the technology needs to improve there. We see this version as the iPhone 1. We're interested in the iPhone 2, 3, 4, getting better and better.
Ultimately, I see this as something that would be like a pregnancy test you could take at your doctor's office. If it came back positive, your doctor could say, "Look, there's some news here, but actually, it's not bad news, it's good news. We've caught this so early that we will be able to manage this, and this won't be a problem for you."
If this were to be in routine use in the medical system, countless lives could be saved. Cancer is now becoming one of the biggest killers in the world. We're talking millions upon millions upon millions of people who are affected. This really motivates our work. We might make a difference there.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.