Even with groundbreaking advances in cancer treatment and research over the past two centuries, the problem remains that some cancer does not respond to treatment. A subset of patients experience recurrence or metastasis, even when the original tumor is detected at an early stage.
"Why do some tumors evolve into metastatic disease that is then capable of spreading, while other tumors do not?"
Moreover, doctors are not able to tell in advance which patients will respond to treatment and which will not. This means that many patients endure conventional cancer therapies, like countless rounds of chemo and radiation, that do not ultimately increase their likelihood of survival.
Researchers are beginning to understand why some tumors respond to treatment and others do not. The answer appears to lie in the strange connection between human life at its earliest stages — and retroviruses. A retrovirus is different than a regular virus in that its RNA is reverse-transcribed into DNA, which makes it possible for its genetic material to be integrated into a host's genome, and passed on to subsequent generations.
Researchers have shown that reactivation of retroviral sequences is associated with the survival of developing embryos. Certain retroviral sequences must be expressed around the 8-cell stage for successful embryonic development. Active expression of retroviral sequences is required for proper functioning of human embryonic stem cells. These sequences must then shut down at the later state, or the embryo will fail to develop. And here's where things get really interesting: If specific stem cell-associated retroviral sequences become activated again later in life, they seem to play a role in some cancers becoming lethal.
"Eight to 10 million years ago, at the time when we became primates, the population was infected with a virus."
While some retroviral sequences in our genome contribute to the restriction of viral infection and appear to have contributed to the development of the placenta, they can also, if expressed at the wrong time, drive the development of cancer stem cells. Described as the "beating hearts" of treatment-resistant tumors, cancer stem cells are robust and long-living, and they can maintain the ability to proliferate indefinitely.
This apparent connection has inspired Gennadi V. Glinsky, a research scientist at the Institute of Engineering in Medicine at UC San Diego, to find better ways to diagnose and treat metastatic cancer. Glinsky specializes in the development of new technologies, methods, and system integration approaches for personalized genomics-guided prevention and precision therapy of cancer and other common human disorders. We spoke with him about his work and the exciting possibilities it may open up for cancer patients. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What key questions have driven your research in this area?
I was thinking for years that the major mysteries are: Why do some tumors evolve into metastatic disease that is then capable of spreading, while other tumors do not? What explains some cancer cells' ability to get into the blood or lymph nodes and be able to survive in this very foreign, hostile environment of circulatory channels, and then be able to escape and take root elsewhere in the body?
"If you detect conventional cancer early, and treat it early, it will be cured. But with cancer involving stem cells, even if you diagnose it early, it will come back."
When we were able to do genomic analysis on enough early stage cancers, we arrived at an alternative concept of cancer that starts in the stem cells. Stem cells exist throughout our bodies, so in the case of cancer starting in stem cells you will have metastatic properties … because that's what stem cells do. They can travel throughout the body, they can make any other type of cell or resemble them.
So there are basically two types of cancer: conventional non-stem cell cancer and stem cell-like cancer. If you detect conventional cancer early, and treat it early, it will be cured. But with cancer involving stem cells, even if you diagnose it early, it will come back.
What causes some cancer to originate in stem cells?
Cancer stem cells possess stemness [or the ability to self-renew, differentiate, and survive chemical and physical insults]. Stemness is driven by the reactivation of retroviral sequences that have been integrated into the human genome.
Tell me about these retroviral sequences.
Eight to 10 million years ago, at the time when we became primates, the population was infected with a virus. Part of the population survived and the virus was integrated into our primate ancestors' genome. These are known as human endogenous retroviruses, or HERVs. The DNA of the host cells became carriers of these retroviral sequences, and whenever the host cells multiply, they carry the sequences in them and pass them on to future generations.
This pattern of infection and integration of retroviral sequences has happened thousands of times during our evolutionary history. As a result, eight percent of the human genome is derived from these different retroviral sequences.
We've found that some HERVs are expressed in some cancers. For example, 10-15 percent of prostate cancer is stem cell-like. But at first it was not understood what this HERV expression meant.
Gennadi V. Glinsky, a research scientist at the Institute of Engineering in Medicine at UC San Diego.
How have you endeavored to solve this in your lab?
We were trying to track down metastatic prostate cancer. We found a molecular signature of prostate cancer that made the prostate tumors look like stem cells. And those were the ones likely to fail cancer therapy. Then we applied this signature to other types of cancers and we found that uniformly, tumors that exhibit stemness fail therapy.
Then in 2014, several breakthrough papers came out that linked the activation of the retroviral sequences in human embryonic stem cells and in human embryo development. When I read these papers, it occurred to me that if these retroviral sequences are required for pluripotency in human embryonic stem cells, they must be involved in stem cell-resembling human cancer that's likely to fail therapy.
What was one of the biggest aha moments in your cancer research?
Several major labs around the U.S. took advantage of The Cancer Genome Anatomy Project, which made it possible to have access to about 12,000 individual human tumors across a spectrum of 30 or so cancer types. This is the largest set of tumors that's ever been made available in a comprehensive and state of the art way. So we now know all there is to know about the genetics of these tumors, including the long-term clinical outcome.
"When we cross-referenced these 10,713 human cancer survival genes to see how many are part of the retroviral network in human cells, we found that the answer was 97 percent!"
These labs identified 10,713 human genes that were associated with the likelihood of patients surviving or dying after [cancer] treatment. I call them the human cancer survival genes, and there are two classes of them: one whose high expression in tumors correlates with an increased likelihood of survival and one whose high expression in tumors correlates with a decreased likelihood of survival.
When we cross-referenced these 10,713 human cancer survival genes to see how many are part of the retroviral network in human cells, we found that the answer was 97 percent!
How will all of this new knowledge change how cancer is treated?
To make cancer stem cells vulnerable to treatment, you need to interfere with stemness and the stemness network. And to do this, you would need to identify the retroviral component of the network, and interfere with this component therapeutically.
The real breakthrough will come when we start to treat these early stage stem cell-like cancers with stem cell-targeting therapy that we are trying to develop. And with our ability to detect the retroviral genome activation, we will be able to detect stem cell-like cancer very early on.
How far away are we from being able to apply this information clinically?
We have two molecule [treatment] candidates. We know that they efficiently interfere with the stemness program in the cells. The road to clinical trials is typically a long one, but since we're clear about our targets, it's a shorter road. We would like to say it's two to three years until we can start a human trial.
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.