Cellular Senescence and Cancer Therapy: Overcoming Immortality?

At the time of writing this post, no scientist had yet discovered the secret to immortality. In our world, we’ve come to accept that living things are born, grow old and die—the circle of life.

And yet, for many years, life scientists believed that the circle of life did not apply to our constituent cells when cultured in a laboratory. That is, cultured normal human cells were immortal, and they would continue to grow and proliferate forever, as long as they were provided with the necessary nutrients.

The animal cell cycle. Image by Kelvinsong; made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Pioneering work published in 1961 by Leonard Hayflick and Paul Moorhead challenged that theory (reviewed in 1). Their research showed that normal cells in culture have a finite capacity to replicate. After they reach a certain number of replicative cycles, cells stop dividing. Hayflick and Moorhead made the important distinction between normal human cells and cultured cancer cells, which are truly immortal. In later years, the limit to the number of replicative cycles normal human cells can undergo became known as the Hayflick limit. Although some scientists still express skepticism about these findings, the Hayflick limit is widely recognized as a fundamental principle of cell biology.

Continue reading “Cellular Senescence and Cancer Therapy: Overcoming Immortality?”

Kicking Off the New Year with Three Popular Plant Papers

It’s officially 2022, Happy belated New Year! A lot of amazing research is trending in science news right now. In particular, take a look at three plant-related papers that discuss interesting research and advancements in plant science.

Continue reading “Kicking Off the New Year with Three Popular Plant Papers”

RAS-Targeted Drug Discovery: From Challenge to Opportunity

cancer cell, ras-targeted drug discovery

In 1963, Jennifer Harvey was studying Moloney murine leukemia virus (MMLV) at the cancer research department of the London Hospital Research Laboratories. After routine transfers of plasma from MMLV-infected rats to mice, she made an unusual discovery. In addition to the expected leukemia, the mice that received the plasma developed solid tumors (soft-tissue sarcomas), primarily in the spleen (1). A few years later, Werner Kirsten at the University of Chicago observed similar results working with mouse erythroblastosis virus (MEV) (2).

Subsequent research, with the advent of genome sequencing, showed that a cellular rat gene had been incorporated into the viral genome in both cases (3). These genomic sequences contained a mutation later shown to be responsible for the development of sarcomas, and the word “oncogene” became a common part of the vocabulary in cancer publications during the early 1980s (4). Harvey’s discovery led to the naming of the corresponding rat sarcoma oncogene as HRAS, while Kirsten’s related oncogene was named KRAS. Several laboratories, working independently, cloned the human homolog of the viral HRAS gene in 1982 (3). The human KRAS gene was cloned shortly thereafter, as well as a third RAS gene, named NRAS (3). Additional studies showed that a single point mutation in each of these genes led to oncogenic activation, and they have been popular targets for anticancer drug discovery efforts ever since.

Continue reading “RAS-Targeted Drug Discovery: From Challenge to Opportunity”

Glycobiology Research and Training Opportunities are Plentiful

glycans on cell surface
Artist’s rendering of asymmetrically-branched carbohydrates on cell surface proteins.

Glycobiology is the study of glycans, the carbohydrate molecules that cover the surface of most human cells. Glycans attach to cell surface proteins and lipids, in a process called glycosylation. These cell surface structures are responsible for processes as varied at protein folding, cell signaling and cell-cell recognition, including sperm-egg recognition and immune cell interactions. Glycans play important roles in the red blood cell antigens that distinguish blood types O, A and B.

Opportunities in Glycomics Research
As more is learned about the role of glycans in cell communication, they are becoming important disease research targets, particularly the role of glycans in cancer and inflammatory diseases (2).

Some of the open questions surrounding glycans and glycosylation include glycan structural diversity. While some carbohydrates exist as straight or symmetrically branched chains, those populating the human glycome are asymmetrically branched, making them difficult to create and study in the laboratory (3). Continue reading “Glycobiology Research and Training Opportunities are Plentiful”

The Pan-Cancer Atlas: “The End of the Beginning”

Yesterday, a series of 27 papers representing the most comprehensive genomic analysis of human cancers to date was published in Cell Press journals.

The collection constitutes the final outputs from the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) project, a collaboration between the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) involving analysis of over 11,000 tumors representing 33 different cancers. The many research teams involved analyzed tumor DNA, mRNA, miRNA and chromatin, comparing them to matched normal cellular genomes to perform a complete molecular characterization of cancer-specific changes. The results have been presented with much hope that open access to this type of comprehensive analysis will build on recent advances in understanding tumor biology and spur further progress in developing new approaches to treatment. (See this news item for more detail).

The Pan-Cancer Atlas results are collected on a cell.com portal, where they are presented in three collections grouped by topic: Cell of Origin, Oncogenic Processes and Signaling Pathways. Each collection is accompanied by a “Flagship” paper introducing the topic and summarizing the findings. It seems fitting that these findings have been published in #HumanGenomeMonth. This comprehensive analysis of the genomic and metagenomic profiles of tumors illustrates one powerful application of the type of genomic analysis pioneered by the original Human Genome Project, and shows just how much has been made possible since the initial publication of the human genome fifteen years ago. Continue reading “The Pan-Cancer Atlas: “The End of the Beginning””

Magnetic Bacteria Carry Drugs into Tumors

cancer cellAt first glance, the biology of magnetic, underwater-dwelling, oxygen-averse bacteria may seem of little relevance to our most pressing human health problems. But science is full of surprises. A paper published this week in Nature Nanotechnology presents an inspired use of these bacteria to deliver anti-cancer drugs to tumors, specifically targeting the oxygen-starved regions generated by aggressively proliferating cells. Continue reading “Magnetic Bacteria Carry Drugs into Tumors”

microRNA: The Small Molecule with a Big Story


miR-34 precursor secondary structure. The colors indicate evolutionary conservation. Ppgardne [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
RNA molecules have become a hot topic of research. While I was taught about messenger RNA (mRNA), ribosomal RNA (rRNA) and transfer RNA (tRNA), many more varieties have come into the nomenclature after I graduated with my science degrees. Even more interesting, these RNAs do not code for a protein, but instead have a role in regulating gene expression. From long non-coding RNA (lncRNA) to short interfering RNA (siRNA), microRNA (miRNA) and small nucleolar RNA (snoRNA), these classes of RNAs affect protein translation, whether by hindering ribosomal binding, targeting mRNA for degradation or even modifying DNA (e.g., methylation). This post will cover the topic of microRNAs, explaining what they are, how researchers understand their function and role in metabolism, cancer and cardiovascular disease, and some of the challenges in miRNA research.

What are microRNAs? MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are short noncoding RNAs 19–25 nucleotides long that play a role in protein expression by regulating translation initiation and degrading mRNA. miRNAs are coded as genes in DNA and transcribed by RNA polymerase as a primary transcript (pri-miRNA) that is hundreds or thousands of nucleotides long. After processing with a double-stranded RNA-specific nuclease, a 70–100 nucleotide hairpin RNA precursor (pre-miRNA) is generated and transported from the nucleus into the cytoplasm. Once in the cytoplasm, the pre-miRNA is cleaved into an 18- to 24-nucleotide duplex by ribonuclease III (Dicer). This cleaved duplex associates with the RNA-induced silencing complex (RISC), and one strand of the miRNA duplex remains with RISC to become the mature miRNA. Continue reading “microRNA: The Small Molecule with a Big Story”

A Day in the Life: Promega France Supports Cancer Research with their Feet…and Hearts

The Promega France Courir Pour Elles team (left to right): Emeline, Florence, Emmanuel, Sylvia, Veronique and Françoise.
The Promega France Courir Pour Elles team (left to right): Emeline, Florence, Emmanuel, Sylvia, Veronique and Françoise.

In the US, Memorial Day weekend is upon us. Three luxurious days to spend doing whatever your heart desires (and/or your family needs).

Promega’s family is international, and for today’s “A Day in the Life” blog, we look at how the Branch office in France, Promega France, spends their free time in support of disease research.

I spoke with a member of the team from Lyon, France, earlier this week about a cancer fundraising event that Promega France participated in, May 21.

The event, Courir Pour Elles (Running for Her) is dedicated to raising awareness of and money to support research into cancers that affect women. Not only did this team participate, but Promega was, for the first time, a sponsor of the event (note the ankle band photo). Continue reading “A Day in the Life: Promega France Supports Cancer Research with their Feet…and Hearts”

Unexpected connections: Gut bacteria influence immunotherapy outcomes

Over the last few years, human microbiome studies have revealed fascinating connections between our colonizing microorganisms and ourselves—including associations between gut bacterial populations and obesity, disease susceptibility, and even mood. The relationship between us and our microbial colonists—once considered completely benign, is now being revealed as an intricate, complicated partnership with the potential to redefine who “we” are in fundamental ways.

Two papers published back-to-back in the November 27 issue of Science add further to this growing body of knowledge—reporting a new and unexpected connection between gut bacterial species and the effectiveness of cancer immunotherapies in mice. The work suggests one reason why such treatments are effective in some circumstances, but not others. Both papers report that the presence of specific bacterial populations may be required for the efficacy of certain treatments, and raise the intriguing question “Could the composition of bacteria in the gut be manipulated to enhance the effectiveness of cancer treatments?” Continue reading “Unexpected connections: Gut bacteria influence immunotherapy outcomes”

Designer Bacteria Detect Cancer

Every day scientists apply creative ideas to solve real-world problems. Every so often a paper comes up that highlights the creativity and elegance of this process in a powerful way. The paper “Programmable probiotics for detection of cancer in urine”, published May 27 in Science Translational Medicine, provides one great example of the application of scientific creativity to develop potential new ways for early detection of cancer.

The paper describes use of an engineered strain of E.coli to detect liver tumors in mice. The authors (Danino et al) developed a potential diagnostic assay that uses a simple oral delivery method and provides a readout from urine, all of which is made possible by some seriously complex and elegant science. Continue reading “Designer Bacteria Detect Cancer”