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The Newsstand – Feb 2018

The Newsstand - our hand-picked highlights of the best cancer research stories

Cancer-hunting “nanorobots”

Who isn’t intrigued by this headline? Sounds positively science fiction, but the research the news reported on is firmly in the realms of reality. The “robots” are not what you might think – they’re actually made of bits of DNA that when arranged into microscopic sheets automatically fold into a tubular shape that can carry a drug molecule. The researchers also designed the DNA “robots” to unfold and release the drug only when they encountered a specific biological chemical in the body. In this case they built the robots to release the drug only in the presence of a molecule usually found on the inside of blood vessels that feed tumours. The drug caused clots to form in these vessels, effectively cutting off the tumour’s blood supply. The full research article can be read here.

Asparagus linked to the spread of breast cancer

We should always be wary of news articles that say something in our diet is linked to cancer. The causes of cancer are as complex as the disease itself, so there’s always lots of things to consider when trying to link something like a single food to cancer. In this study, the researchers found that when they reduced the levels of a chemical found in asparagus, called asparagine, in mice, the animals were much less likely to develop secondary breast cancer (when the cancer spreads to other organs in the body). Looking at the clinical records of breast cancer patients, they also noted that those with breast tumours producing the most asparagine were much more likely to develop secondary breast cancer.

Using their mouse studies, the researchers were able to show that by blocking, or by restricting the intake of the chemical in the animals’ diet, it was possible to reduce the spread of breast cancer. So there may be a simple way to help lower a patient’s chance of developing secondary breast cancer, but we won’t know for sure until further studies are carried out in people. The original research article is available here.

Drug trial extends survival of people with prostate cancer

An international clinical trial involving 1,200 patients across 23 countries showed that a new drug, called Apalutamide, could give patients an extra two years of life without their cancer getting any worse. Patients in the trial who received the drug had an average of 40.5 months progression-free survival (length of time alive without their cancer getting any worse) compared to 16.2 months for those that received a placebo. All the patients in the trial had stopped responding to the normal treatment for prostate cancer before they were given the new drug. At this point there is currently no approved treatments for preventing the progression of the disease, so this trial offers new hope for people with prostate cancer. The research can be read here.

Mini-tumours are edging closer to the clinic

A shared vision amongst researchers and cancer doctors is the idea that every patient receives fully personalised cancer care based on the genetic and molecular characteristic of their tumour. Using a technique that began with pioneering work carried out by a Worldwide Cancer Research scientist nearly two decades ago, researchers have shown that growing “mini-tumours”, also called organoids, in the lab from a patient’s own cells, can be used to predict which treatments will work the best. The researchers grew mini-tumours from 71 patients with colorectal cancer before testing the same drugs on them that the patients had received in the clinic.  They found that if the drug worked in the mini-tumours, it worked 88% of the time in the patient, but importantly if the drug failed in the organoids, it failed 100% of the time in the patient. This means that mini-tumours could offer a way to not only pick drugs that will be of benefit, but help patients avoid receiving treatments that won’t work, sparing them potentially toxic side effects and wasted time. Read the research here.

Risk of ovarian cancer may be passed from fathers to daughters through faulty gene

A new genetic mutation has been discovered by researchers that they believe raises the risk of ovarian cancer and can also be passed on from fathers to daughters. The mutation occurs in a gene that is present on the X chromosome, which daughters can inherit from their father. More research needs to be done to fully understand the role and function of this gene and if it really does increase risk of ovarian cancer. If so, it could help women better understand their own risk, and help to develop more effective strategies to prevent cancer in high-risk individuals. Read the full research article here.



Jiang et al., A DNA nanorobot functions as a cancer therapeutic in response to a molecular trigger in vivo, Nature Biotechnology, Feb 2018, DOI: 10.1038/nbt.4071

Knott et al., Asparagine bioavailability governs metastasis in a model of breast cancer, Nature, Feb 2018, DOI: 10.1038/nature25465

Smith et al., Apalutamide Treatment and Metastasis-free Survival in Prostate Cancer, NEJM, Feb 2018, DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1715546

Vlachogiannis et al., Patient-derived organoids model treatment response of metastatic gastrointestinal cancers, Science, Feb 2018, DOI: 10.1126/science.aao2774

Eng et al., Paternal lineage early onset hereditary ovarian cancers: A Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry study, PLoS Genetics, Feb 2018, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1007194


Image credit: rob zand - Flickr

Science Communications Manager

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