Mystery Rays from Outer Space

Meddling with things mankind is not meant to understand. Also, pictures of my kids

October 28th, 2010

Immunological standoff

TRegs infiltrate a tumor
TRegs infiltrate into a tumor

There’s increasing evidence supporting the notion that tumors are often not rejected by the immune system because regulatory T cells actively block the immune response to the tumor cells. 1

That means that within the tumor, two branches of the immune response are fighting it out. If the TRegs win, the tumor will not be rejected (and may eventually kill the host); if the rejection branch2 wins, the tumor may be rejected and the host may survive a little longer.

Both TRegs and rejection-branch T cells are driven by specific antigen. That is, as opposed to the general patterns that drive innate immune responses, the T cells are activated by peptides associated with major histocompatibility complexes (mainly class II MHC, for the TRegs).

So that raises an interesting question: What specific peptides activate the TRegs in the tumors, and are they different from the ones that activate rejection-type CD4s?

The question is even more interesting than it may seem at first glance, because3 there are different TReg subsets with different peptide preferences. One set of TRegs likes to see ordinary self-peptides: Peptides that are naturally present, and that should not be rejected because, well, they’re part of you. “Normal” rejection-type T cells don’t see those peptides, because those that do are killed during their development (or are converted into TRegs during development, probably). The other group of TRegs sees foreign peptides, that would be expected to be rejected. You need these TRegs as well, because there are times when a chronic immune response, even to a foreign invader, is more harmful than the invader itself; so under those circumstances, some rejection-type T cells get converted into TRegs, and those can shut down the response to the invader, hopefully to reach a happy accommodation.

Are the TRegs in tumors the first kind, that are activated by the normal self-antigens that are present in the tumor cells (which are, remember, originally you to start with)? Or are they the second type, responding to the foreign antigen present in the tumor (mutated proteins, say, or over-expressed growth factors) but converted into a TReg type from a rejection-type when the tumor foreign antigens proved to be a chronic stuimulus?

Reservoir Dogs StandoffA recent paper4 suggests it’s the latter:

This allows us to ask whether tumor-associated Treg cells arise from the repertoire of TCRs used by natural Treg cells or from the repertoire used by effector cells. We show that Treg population in tumors is dominated by T cells expressing the same TCRs as effector T cells. These data suggest that Treg in tumors are generated by expansion of a minor subset of Treg cells that shares TCRs with effector T cells or by conversion of effector CD4+ T cells and thus could represent adaptive Treg cells. 4

If this is generally true (and the authors do offer a helpful series of caveats) it has a very important implication. There’s a huge amount of interest in tumor vaccines — identify an antigen specific for the tumor, and induce a potent immune response to it, in the hope that T cells will then reject the tumor. But you see the problem: If the TRegs are stimulated by the same antigen, then your vaccine is going to increase both sides — the rejection branch and the TReg branch — and you’re no further ahead than when you started! This may be one of the reasons that tumor vaccines have been only intermittently effective. But it does make even more attractive another approach toward cancer immunization, where TRegs are specifically blocked, hopefully allowing the already-present rejection-type5 T cells to kick in and, maybe, eliminate the tumor:

This further suggests that improved cancer immunotherapy may depend on the ability to block tumor-antigen induced expansion of a minor Treg subset or generation of adaptive Treg cells, rather than solely on increasing the immunogenicity of vaccines. 4


  1. I’m not quite comfortable with the phrasing here, but I can’t come up with a non-lawyerly, succinct way to phrase it. TRegs are part of the immune system, and so when they’re active the immune system isn’t blocked, it’s highly functional. What’s being blocked is what we traditionally think of as an immune response — the aggressive response that causes inflammation and that kills targets — while the TReg form is the branch of the immune response that prevents all those things. When TRegs are dominant, the immune response isn’t easily visible, but it’s still an active immune response.[]
  2. Again, not happy with the term; if anyone has a more felicitious phrase, let me know[]
  3. My qualifier here is “For now”, because this is a rapidly-changing field that has kind of outstripped my ability to follow it right now; I’m not quite sure whether this is the consensus view any more[]
  4. Kuczma, M., Kopij, M., Pawlikowska, I., Wang, C., Rempala, G., & Kraj, P. (2010). Intratumoral Convergence of the TCR Repertoires of Effector and Foxp3+ CD4+ T cells PLoS ONE, 5 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013623[][][]
  5. Having typed that a dozen times here, I like it less than ever[]
February 3rd, 2010

Tumors as ecosystems

Park et al JCI 2010 Fig 2
Clonal evolution during in situ to invasive breast carcinoma progression1

What’s a tumor?

In some ways, that’s a bad question (never mind the answer) because it implies that a tumor is a single thing. But we know that’s not true. A tumor, by the time we can detect it, is a collection of many cells, at least billions of them, and those cells are not all the same. I’m not even talking about the normal cell types that are incorporated into a tumor (things like blood vessels and support cells). Even cells that are unambiguously cancerous are very different within a tumor. And of course, that’s important for the things we’re most interested in, prognosis and treatment, because it’s not the average tumor cell that we’re most concerned about, it’s the subset of tumor cells that are most resistant to treatment, or that are most aggressive.

The development of this variation is really fundamental to how we understand tumor formation and tumor growth. Cancerous cells don’t just appear, fully ready to metastasize and grow. What happens is that a normal cell mutates slightly and gains a little advantage. Most of its progeny stay like that, but one of them mutates again and changes a little more, and then one of that cell’s progeny mutates again, and so on. It probably takes at least a half-dozen mutations, over many cell generations, before a normal cell has progressed through to a detectably cancerous cell.  (I’ve talked about this before, here.)

Also, since truly normal cells simply don’t mutate that many times — there are too many checks and repair systems to allow a half-dozen mutations to accumulate in a single human’s2 lifetime — one of the mutations is probably in the check/repair system, turning the cancerous pathway into a mutator pathway as well.

So we expect tumors to be made up of many different cell types, and this is indeed what we see:

With rare exceptions, human malignancies are thought to originate from a single cell, yet by the time of diagnosis, most tumors display startling heterogeneity in cell morphology, proliferation rates, angiogenic and metastatic potential, and expression of cell surface molecules. 1

So how diverse are tumors?

That’s been a hard question to answer, because you’d need tools to look at individual cells, and you’d also need some way of expressing that diversity. A recent paper1 looked at diversity in breast cancer using some individual-cell tools, which I’m not going to discuss, and took an interesting approach to describing the variability:

… we applied diversity measures from the ecology and evolution sciences to our copy number data. These diversity measures estimate the number and distribution of species in a certain geographical area or environmental niche. In our context, a species is a cancer cell population … Hence, a region of a tumor containing cancer cells with 3 different copy number ratios is interpreted to contain 3 distinct “species.” 1

They suggest that this way of describing tumors could be a useful aid to prognosis and to predicting response to therapy, offering a quantitative description of tumor variability (which might correlate with the tumor’s potential for spread and escaping treatment).

I hadn’t thought of tumors as ecosystems before, but I wonder if the analogy could be taken further by considering, say,cytotoxic T lymphocytes as predators …


  1. Park, S., Gönen, M., Kim, H., Michor, F., & Polyak, K. (2010). Cellular and genetic diversity in the progression of in situ human breast carcinomas to an invasive phenotype Journal of Clinical Investigation DOI: 10.1172/JCI40724[][][][]
  2. let alone a mouse’s lifetime[]
December 16th, 2009

On cancer genomes

Wellcome: Cigarette poster

We’re just dipping our toes into the oceans of information from large-scale genome sequencing. We’re at the point now where sequencing a human genome is, not routine, but not extraordinary. The most recent examples of this are two groups who sequenced the genome of a cancer (one group did a lung cancer, the other did a melanoma), and compared to the person’s normal cells. 1   This lets you see where the cancer cells are mutated.

How many mutations are there in a cancer? We already know that cancer is a multi-step process, involving probably at least 7 or 8 distinct stages. We also know that cancer cells have far more mutations than are needed for these minimals steps. How many is “more”?

  • Over 20,000 mutations – 23,000 mutations in the lung cancer, 33,000 in the skin cancer.

Where did these mutations come from? What drives mutagenesis in a cancer cell?

  • Cigarettes and UV light. They can point out the typical kinds of mutagenesis for each and show that the lung cancer mutations are tobacco-induced, the skin cancer mutations are UV-induced.

How often do cigarettes cause mutations?

  • “… an average of one mutation for every 15 cigarettes smoked.”

(I question this figure, or rather, question whether the implied causation is that direct. But it’s not impossible, given their data.)  From an immunological viewpoint, the 20,000 mutations is interesting because it suggests that cancers should have lots of targets for the immune system. This was already pretty clear, but this helps nail it down.

(By the way, the poster at the top, like the research in question, comes from the Wellcome Trust Institute.)


  1. Pleasance, E., Stephens, P., O’Meara, S., McBride, D., Meynert, A., Jones, D., Lin, M., Beare, D., Lau, K., Greenman, C., Varela, I., Nik-Zainal, S., Davies, H., Ordoñez, G., Mudie, L., Latimer, C., Edkins, S., Stebbings, L., Chen, L., Jia, M., Leroy, C., Marshall, J., Menzies, A., Butler, A., Teague, J., Mangion, J., Sun, Y., McLaughlin, S., Peckham, H., Tsung, E., Costa, G., Lee, C., Minna, J., Gazdar, A., Birney, E., Rhodes, M., McKernan, K., Stratton, M., Futreal, P., & Campbell, P. (2009). A small-cell lung cancer genome with complex signatures of tobacco exposure Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature08629

    Pleasance, E., Cheetham, R., Stephens, P., McBride, D., Humphray, S., Greenman, C., Varela, I., Lin, M., Ordóñez, G., Bignell, G., Ye, K., Alipaz, J., Bauer, M., Beare, D., Butler, A., Carter, R., Chen, L., Cox, A., Edkins, S., Kokko-Gonzales, P., Gormley, N., Grocock, R., Haudenschild, C., Hims, M., James, T., Jia, M., Kingsbury, Z., Leroy, C., Marshall, J., Menzies, A., Mudie, L., Ning, Z., Royce, T., Schulz-Trieglaff, O., Spiridou, A., Stebbings, L., Szajkowski, L., Teague, J., Williamson, D., Chin, L., Ross, M., Campbell, P., Bentley, D., Futreal, P., & Stratton, M. (2009). A comprehensive catalogue of somatic mutations from a human cancer genome Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature08658 []

November 4th, 2009

Tumor TRegs are more focused than I expected

TRegs infiltrate a tumor
TRegs infiltrate into a tumor

One of the reasons the immune system doesn’t destroy tumors is the presence of regulatory T cells (TRegs) that actively shut down the anti-tumor response.  For once, there’s a little bit of encouraging news on that front.

TRegs are normal parts of the immune system.  They actively prevent other T cells (and so on) from attacking their target. 1  What’s more, TRegs are antigen-specific.  That is, they recognize a specific target, just as do other T cells, but instead of responding by, say, destroying the cells (like  cytotoxic T lymphocyte) or by releasing interferon (like a T helper cell) a TReg’s response to antigen is to prevent other T cells from doing anything in response to that antigen.  In other words, TRegs cause an antigen-specific inhibition of the conventional immune response. 2

Back to tumors.  We know that immune responses don’t routinely eliminate tumors by the time they’re detectable.  There is some evidence that lots of very small, proto-tumors, are in fact destroyed by the immune system very early on, before they’re clinically detectable, but those tumors that survive that attack seem to be pretty resistant to immune control.  At least part of that resistance is because TRegs get co-opted into the tumor’s control (see here, and references therein, for more on that).

So if TRegs are antigen-specific, and TRegs control immune responses to the tumor, what are the tumor antigens that are driving the TRegs?

I would have assumed that TRegs are looking at many, many tumor antigens, including both normal self antigens3 as well as classical tumor antigens.4  But a recent paper5 suggests, to my surprise, that this assumption is wrong.  Instead, “Tregs in tumor patients were highly specific for a distinct set of only a few tumor antigens“. 5 What’s more, eliminating TRegs cranked up the functional immune response, but only to those antigens TRegs recognized — as you’d expect, if the suppression is indeed antigen specific.

This is interesting for several reasons.  If TRegs can be specific for tumor antigens, then at least in theory ((In practice, we don’t quite have the tools yet, I think) it should be possible to turn off these TRegs while leaving the bulk of TRegs intact (and therefore not precipitating violent autoimmunity).  It also suggests that if the TRegs are only suppressing a subset of effector T cells, there’s something else preventing most effector T cells from, well, effecting.  Maybe those are antigen non-specific TRegs, or maybe there’s something else we need to know about.

I’d like to see this sort of study replicated, and a little more fine-tuning on identifying the TReg’s targets (the readout was intentionally fairly coarse here, in order to identify as many as possible).  Still, it’s an unexpected, and potentially very useful, observation.


  1. It’s still not quite clear how they do this[]
  2. There are also antigen-nonspecific TRegs, but we will ignore them for now.  They’re not as effective as the antigen-specific sort, anyway.[]
  3. Because TRegs, unlike most immune cells, can be stimulated by normal self antigens[]
  4. That is, antigens that are mutated, or dysregulated, and that therefore act as standard targets for immune cells[]
  5. Bonertz, A., Weitz, J., Pietsch, D., Rahbari, N., Schlude, C., Ge, Y., Juenger, S., Vlodavsky, I., Khazaie, K., Jaeger, D., Reissfelder, C., Antolovic, D., Aigner, M., Koch, M., & Beckhove, P. (2009). Antigen-specific Tregs control T cell responses against a limited repertoire of tumor antigens in patients with colorectal carcinoma Journal of Clinical Investigation DOI: 10.1172/JCI39608[][]
October 19th, 2009

Brainwashed killers

TRegs in normal skin
TRegs in normal skin

Tumors are supposed to be destroyed by our immune system. So how come we still see tumors?

A big part of the answer is probably that our immune system is very good at destroying proto-tumors, but is not so good at handling those that manage to sneak through and grow to the point of detectability. That splits the first question into two questions: Why do some proto-tumors manage to sneak through, not being eliminated by the immune system? And why is it that detectable tumors are not effectively handled?

The first part, I think, may often be related to cell-intrinsic immune escape mutations. That is, pre-cancerous cells are constantly being attacked by the immune system; in turn (if they survive long enough) they constantly mutate, doing things like damaging the antigen-presentation pathway that makes them recognizable by the immune system. Eventually, they find some configuration that reduces the rate at which they’re killed. Once cancer cell replication is even fractionally greater than destruction,1 a tumor can begin to grow.

So that’s probably the earliest stage of tumor growth. But once tumors reach a certain size, a second factor kicks in. Chronic immune responses are dangerous; after all, the whole point of the immune system is to kill things. The chronic immune response against the growing tumor is now shut down. This has been understood for quite a while — the immune system often becomes “tolerant” of a tumor. More recently, it’s become clear that it’s not merely “tolerance” (which implies that the immune system is simply benignly ignoring the tumor); the presence of a tumor actively forces the immune system to shut itself down, slamming on the brakes rather than just peacefully coasting by.

Brakes are a fundamental part of an active immune response. If you look at diagrams of normal immune responses, they show inverted “U” shaped curves (in here and here, for example), where the response is triggered, rapidly ramps up, hopefully does its thing, and then just as rapidly shuts down to near-background levels once again. There used to be a sort of general feeling that this was a rather passive thing — pathogen stimulates response, response destroys pathogen, no more stimulus, response goes away — but now we understand that the shut-down phase is just as active and dynamic as the upward curve. Just as with the upward phase, there are all kinds of different mechanisms to control the response; one of the most important is the “Regulatory T cell” (TReg).  And it’s pretty clear that TRegs are involved in controlling the immune response to tumors (I talked about that here, and links therein).

TRegs have been known for a while (I gave a brief history, including the I-J fiasco, here). The usual description of a TReg includes a number of markers;2 one of the most basic is CD4. CD4 T cells used to be lumped together as “T Helper” cells, but now we have multiple sub-specialties in the CD4 category, and TRegs are one of those specialities.

More recently, TRegs — or at least cells that function the same way as TRegs — have been described in the CD8 population of T cells.3 CD8 T cells are traditionally called “Cytotoxic T lymphocytes” (CTL) (although it’s been increasingly clear that cytotoxicity is just one of many functions a CD8 T cell can offer), but it seems that these variants of CD8s can actively shut down an ongoing immune response, in a specific and targeted way. There seems to be a trend to calling these cells “suppressor cells” rather than “TRegs”. “Suppressor T cells” is an older term that was out of favor for a while, but it’s probably useful to bring it back and distinguish between the natural TRegs and some of the other cells that can do something similar but that have different sources and origins.

At least some of the CD8 suppressor T cells can arise from apparently-conventional CD8 T cells. That is, you can pull CD8 T cells out of a normal mouse’s spleen, and depending on what those cells see and are exposed to, they could progress to being conventional CTL — killing tumor cells, producing interferon and other cytokines, generally being a destructive force — or they could become suppressor CD8 T cells, and actively prevent that destruction from happening.

Brainwashed killerIt turns out that one of the forces that can drive a CD8 T cell into being a suppressor T cell is a tumor. A recent paper from Arthur Hurwitz’s lab4 shows this quite clearly. They had shown previously that transferring specific CD8 T cells into a tumor-bearing mouse resulted in what they called “tolerance”.5 But now they demonstrate that it’s more than that; the transferred CD8s are converted into suppressor T cells that actively shut down immune responses.

Tumor-infiltrating TcR-I cells suppressed the in vitro proliferation of both melanoma Ag-specific CD8+ (37B7) T cells and OVA-specific CD4+ (OT-II) T cells. … Even at a ratio of one TcR-I cell to four responder T cells, we observed 30% suppression of proliferation. 4

This isn’t the only way that tumors escape immune recognition, but (at least for some tumors) it may be an important one. It’s clearly an important consideration for things like tumor vaccines and immune therapy, because it suggests that immunizing with tumor antigens (and thereby generating lots of tumor-specific CD8 T cells) may actually increase the suppressive effect of the tumor.

The conversion of CD8+ effector T cells into suppressor cells may be one mechanism by which tumors restrict the immune response from effectively controlling tumor growth. As subsequent effectors infiltrate the tumor, either following peripheral sensitization or as a result of adoptive transfer therapy, the induced regulatory cells may suppress these new effectors and reduce their ability to confer tumor immunity. This cyclic suppressive process may contribute to the profound loss of antitumor responses following adoptive immunotherapy. 4

(My emphasis.) On the other hand, if this is a common mechanism, then overriding it — which should be possible, using cytokines, specific T cell subsets, and/or targeted receptor ligands — may switch the suppressive population abruptly back into an effector group, turning the brainwashed traitors into resistance fighters.


  1. Destruction would include far more than immune destruction, of course — it would include cells that become differentiated and no longer replicated, cells that outgrow their oxygen supply, cells that undergo apoptosis, and so on[]
  2. FoxP3, CD25, and so on[]
  3. I’m not sure who made the first identification; this looks as if it’s one of those fields where there were incremental advances, hinting more and more strongly at the presence of these cells, but with no single clearcut starting point. Papers in the early 2000s start to point at regulatory CD8s, and by 2004 a handful of relatively high-profile papers fairly solidly identified them. A 2004 review paper is
    Zimring, J., & Kapp, J. (2004). Identification and Characterization of CD8+ Suppressor T Cells Immunologic Research, 29 (1-3), 303-312 DOI: 10.1385/IR:29:1-3:303[]
  4. Shafer-Weaver, K., Anderson, M., Stagliano, K., Malyguine, A., Greenberg, N., & Hurwitz, A. (2009). Cutting Edge: Tumor-Specific CD8+ T Cells Infiltrating Prostatic Tumors Are Induced to Become Suppressor Cells The Journal of Immunology, 183 (8), 4848-4852 DOI: 10.4049/jimmunol.0900848[][][]
  5. Anderson MJ, Shafer-Weaver K, Greenberg NM, & Hurwitz AA (2007). Tolerization of tumor-specific T cells despite efficient initial priming in a primary murine model of prostate cancer. Journal of immunology (Baltimore, Md. : 1950), 178 (3), 1268-76 PMID: 17237372[]
September 18th, 2009

Beautiful tumors

A new technique called optical frequency domain imaging (OFDI) provides amazing images of tumors (especially their blood vessels) in situ.

3D tumor vasculature with OFDI
“(a) OFDI images of representative control and treated tumors 5 d after initiation of antiangiogenic VEGFR-2. The lymphatic
vascular networks are also presented (blue) for both tumors. (b) Quantification of tumor volume and vascular geometry and
morphology in response to VEGFR-2 blockade.”

Vakoc, B., Lanning, R., Tyrrell, J., Padera, T., Bartlett, L., Stylianopoulos, T., Munn, L., Tearney, G., Fukumura, D., Jain, R., & Bouma, B. (2009). Three-dimensional microscopy of the tumor microenvironment in vivo using optical frequency domain imaging Nature Medicine DOI: 10.1038/nm.1971

August 14th, 2009

On cancer mortality

[Cancer] mortality has been systematically decreasing among younger individuals for many decades. … the cancer mortality rates for 30 to 59 year olds born between 1945 and 1954 was 29% lower than for people of the same age born three decades earlier.  … substantial changes in cancer mortality risk across the life span have been developing over the past half century in the United States. … this analysis suggests that efforts in prevention, early detection, and/or treatment have significantly affected our society’s experience of cancer risk.1

Cancer mortality by birth cohort

All-site cancer rates in successive birth cohorts by age of death.
Mortality rates for decadal birth cohorts between 1925 and 2004 are plotted by age at death.
1

But:

The mortality decline we describe in this paper cannot therefore be attributed to an overall decline in cancer incidence. Rather, the net improvement in cancer mortality in birth cohorts born since 1925 seems to reflect a succession of public health and medical care efforts. 1

They point to reduction in smoking, effective treatment of childhood leukemias and lymphomas and testicular cancers of young adulthood, and “increasingly successful screening programs for breast, prostate, and colon cancer” as important factors, and add “We are optimistic that ongoing efforts in very early cancer prevention (such as use of HB and human papillomavirus vaccines), as well as ongoing clinical trials of targeted therapies, will preserve the downward trend of cancer mortality“.


  1. Kort, E., Paneth, N., & Vande Woude, G. (2009). The Decline in U.S. Cancer Mortality in People Born since 1925 Cancer Research, 69 (16), 6500-6505 DOI: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-09-0357[][][]
July 15th, 2009

Transmissible tumors: Similar after all?

Tasmanian Devil road signA year or so ago, the first time I mentioned transmissible tumors, I dismissed Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor disease as not particularly surprising. As I said more recently, I’ve changed my mind about that, almost entirely because of a chat with Elizabeth Murchison at the Origins of Cancer symposium last month, who told me a couple of things I hadn’t known about the situation.

TDFT is a transmissible tumor, a cancer that arose in one Tasmanian Devil some time ago (at least a decade ago, and maybe much longer) and that is now spreading throughout the Tasmanian Devil population — killing a vast number of them. It’s a tumor that’s spread when these highly territorial animals1 bite each other on the face; the tumor then grows on the bitten animal’s face and eventually makes it unable to eat properly. Nearly 90% of Tasmanian Devils, in affected areas, have died. This is a catastrophe.

(The good news, such as it is, may be that the Devils as a population are adapting to the tumor to some extent — not by resisting the tumor, though, but through rapid selection for much earlier breeding. 2 By reproducing earlier, the population may be maintained even though the Devils are dying as adults. Of course, the population that “survives” won’t be the same as those the existed earlier — they’ll be younger, they’ll have all kinds of different characteristics because they’re no longer being selected for adult survival — but at least it might open a window to save the species.)

Orphan Tasmanian DevilCancers are not, in general, transmissible.  Each new cancer is a new event, that arises from normal cells of the affected individual.  A transmissible cancer would be like an organ transplant — it would be rapidly rejected, because individuals in a population have different MHC molecules, and the immune system rapidly and aggressively rejects cells with the wrong MHC. So there are two possible reasons why a tumor could, in fact, become transmissible. Either the individuals in a population do not have different MHC molecules on their cells, or the tumor can transmit between individual in spite of different MHC molecules.

The explanation for the spread of TDFT seemed to be the former: It was claimed that Tasmanian Devils have very little MHC diversity, so that they can’t reject the tumors3. Even though MHC is normally highly diverse in a population, there are certainly populations — especially small, island, threatened populations, like Tasmanian Devils — that have very limited MHC diversity, so this seemed reasonably plausible. 4 This would be a fairly well-understood mechanism of tumor spread, which is why I said it wasn’t that interesting.

Tasmanian Devil skeletonThe other possibility is that the tumor could spread between individuals in spite of them having different MHC molecules. This is not supposed to happen, according to our understanding of MHC and organ transplants; but in fact, it’s the way the only other extant transmissible tumor (Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumor) spreads.  We have no idea why that happens, which makes it interesting. (A number of ways have been proposed by which CTVT avoids rejection. I won’t go into them in any detail here: none of them, as far as I can see, are unique to CTVT, but rather are very common molecular changes in tumors of all kinds, and yet other tumors are not transmissible; so I don’t consider any of these suggestions to explain the unique feature of CTVT.)

Anyway, as I say, the explanation for TDFT was simple enough: The tumor spread because Tasmanian Devils aren’t genetically diverse. But there are three major arguments, I’ve learned, that say that explanation is wrong.

First: Tasmanian Devils are not, in fact, spectacularly genetically homogenous. 5 They’re not as diverse as you’d like to see, but they’re not completely homogenous. In particular, there are two clear, genetically distinct, populations of Devils in Tasmania, one in the East, and another in the Northwest.

Second: Murchison told me that Tasmanian Devils — even those in the same sub-population — vigorously reject each others’ skin grafts. This is what’s supposed to happen with skin grafts, of course. It implies that the Devils do not, in fact, have the same MHC; and in my opinion it’s a much stronger experiment than those in the original homogenous-MHC paper. 3 If Devils reject skin grafts from each other, then they ought to reject tumors from each other — in other words, even if the tumor can take in one individual, then it should be rejected in another, so the tumor should not spread throughout the population. The skin graft finding hasn’t, as far as I know, been published, but if it holds up, it’s a strong argument against homogenous MHC.

Third: Murchison also told me that the tumor is spreading into Devils in the Northwest. 6 As I said, the Northwestern and Eastern Tasmanian Devils are clearly distinct populations, with different genetic characteristics. 7  If the tumor can spread between them, then the tumor isn’t relying on genetic homogeneity for its transmission.

So the evidence for MHC homogeneity is not good, the evidence that the tumor requires MHC homogeneity is not good, and the only precedent we know of, CTVT, does not require MHC homogeneity for its transmission.

It seems that the two transmissible tumors we know of may be much more similar than I had thought.


  1. Incidentally, when I was looking for images of Tasmanian Devils, I found it interesting that the great majority of images I found using Google Image Search showed an open-mouthed, angry Devil, about to take a chomp out of something.  I was going to comment on that, and then I went to Flickr and did the same search, finding instead thousands of pictures of peaceful, timid, close-mouthed Devils.  I think the popular images, put by Google at the top of the list, as so popular because they reinforce the Devil stereotype, and the Flickr photos are a more accurate reflection of their true nature.[]
  2. Jones, M., Cockburn, A., Hamede, R., Hawkins, C., Hesterman, H., Lachish, S., Mann, D., McCallum, H., & Pemberton, D. (2008). Life-history change in disease-ravaged Tasmanian devil populations Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (29), 10023-10027 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0711236105[]
  3. Siddle, H. V., Kreiss, A., Eldridge, M. D., Noonan, E., Clarke, C. J., Pyecroft, S., Woods, G. M., and Belov, K. (2007). Transmission of a fatal clonal tumor by biting occurs due to depleted MHC diversity in a threatened carnivorous marsupial. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 104:16221-16226[][]
  4. Olivia Judson had a very good summary of the argument in her blog; she also made the important point that MHC diversity, or lack of it, is clearly not the only factor involved in the tumor spread.[]
  5. JONES, M., PAETKAU, D., GEFFEN, E., & MORITZ, C. (2004). Genetic diversity and population structure of Tasmanian devils, the largest marsupial carnivore Molecular Ecology, 13 (8), 2197-2209 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2004.02239.x[]
  6. Again, as far as I know this isn’t published yet.[]
  7. The authors of the 2004 paper didn’t specifically look at MHC diversity, though; so it remains possible, if unlikely, that the MHC is relatively homogenous while the rest of the genome is diverse.  This is completely the opposite of the usual situation, so I think it’s not likely.[]
July 10th, 2009

On cancer immunogenicity

As the overwhelming majority of the mutations in cancer cells are unrelated to malignancy, the mutation-generated epitopes shall be specific for each individual tumor, and constitute the antigenic fingerprint of each tumor. These calculations highlight the benefits for personalization of immunotherapy of human cancer, and in view of the substantial pre-existing antigenic repertoire of tumors, emphasize the enormous potential of therapies that modulate the anti-cancer immune response by liberating it from inhibitory influences.

–Srivastava N, Srivastava PK (2009)
Modeling the Repertoire of True Tumor-Specific MHC I Epitopes in a Human Tumor.
PLoS ONE 4(7): e6094. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006094

(My emphasis)

(See many of my previous posts here for more information)

July 6th, 2009

Origins of an infectious cancer

Dogs & Wolf (Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert)
Dogs & Wolf (Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert, 1872)
Naturgeschichte der Säugethiere: mit colorirten
Abbildungen zum Anschauugs-Unterricht für die
Jugend.
(Esslingen : Schreiber, 1872)

Cancer is a creepy disease. Your own cells turn on you, mindlessly and blindly destroying themselves — because the only way a cancer can survive is for its host to survive; unlike viruses, cancers don’t spread from their original carrier to new hosts. Each cancer is a new and unique event, and each cancer is a terminal event, with no future, no children, no transmission. 1 Cancers don’t spread between individuals, because they would essentially be tissue transplants; if you try to transplant skin (or whatever) between two animals, the skin will be rapidly rejected because of mismatched MHC alleles, and the same is true for tumors.

In theory, tumors could spread from one identical twin to another (I don’t know of cases where this has occurred, though). Tumors might also theoretically spread within a population that has little MHC diversity. Cheetahs, for example, notoriously don’t have much MHC diversity,2 probably due to a genetic bottleneck some 10,000 years ago,3 and tolerate random skin grafts very well;4 it’s conceivable that a tumor that arose in one cheetah could spread throughout the population. But MHC is generally diverse, and becomes diverse very rapidly, so these sort of low-diversity populations are unusual (though they may be more common than generally realized). And so, as I say, tumors are dead ends and don’t spread from their original host.

But there are always exceptions, and we know of a couple exceptions for this principle as well. Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor is one; canine transmissible venereal tumor (CTVT) is the other. The last time I talked about this, I said that there wasn’t anything particularly surprising about TDFT. I’ve changed my mind about that, for reasons I’ll talk about later. Here I want to give a quick update on CTVT, which is still even more interesting than TDFT.

CTVT is just what it sounds like: an infectious tumor of dogs. It can be transmitted from one dog to the next, mainly during sex. There’s no sign of a viral agent, and in fact the tumor cells are distinct from the host — that is, the tumor cells are not host cells that have been transformed by, say, a virus, but are foreign agents altogether, cells from an ancient animal that have been passed along in this way, generation after generation, spreading throughout the world. Cells from a CTVT on a German Shepherd in Italy are virtually identical to those from a CTVT on a poodle in Brazil, but the tumor’s cells are very different from their hosts’: “… the differences in genome content between dog and CTVT are substantially greater than those between different CTVT samples.” 5

Dog and wolf phylogenyThe last time I talked about this I cited a paper6 that showed that the original host of CTVT was actually very ancient: “Our analysis of divergence of microsatellites indicates that the tumor arose between 200 and 2500 years ago.6 Amazingly enough,  it seemed that the tumor had been passed between dogs perhaps for a couple of thousand years.

But it turns out that it’s even more amazing than that: The 2500 year estimate turns out to be an underestimate. “The estimated time of origin of CTVT is 6500–65,000 years ago. … The cycle of infection currently takes about six months; if this has been true for, say, 15,000 years, then there have been 30,000 transmission events.5 That spans the age where dogs were domesticated and diverged from wolves , about 10,000-15,000 years ago; and in fact, based on genome analysis of the tumors, the tumors did arise in wolves, not dogs. 7

This raises a fascinating scenario (which I didn’t see spelled out in Reddeck et al, though I think they were hinting at it). It’s still mysterious how CTVT spreads between hosts. As I said, tumors should act like tissue grafts, which are very rapidly rejected if they’re not MHC matched (as is the case with the CTVT and modern dogs). But tumors could, theoretically, spread within a population that has minimal MHC diversity — that is, an inbred population, that has recently undergone a genetic bottleneck. Such a bottleneck very likely happened during the domestication of dogs, as they evolved from wolves. Was the original CTVT a tumor of one of the very first domesticated proto-dogs — an inbred proto-dog,8 a member of a small and inbred population — a spontaneous, fairly ordinary tumor that then spread to the first host’s MHC-matched neighbours in the small and inbred population? That would not be so mysterious; we know tumors can be transplanted between genetically identical hosts, that’s done with lab mice all the time. Then, as the domestic dog population expanded and spread over the world, the tumor would expand and spread along with it, and would have the opportunity to undergo natural selection, adapting to the newly-diverse MHC and to the immune responses that arose after the tumor did. We don’t know, in molecular terms, how the tumor has adapted — we don’t know why it’s able to spread in grow in spite of host immune responses. But at least we can now imagine how the tumor could have reached this point. Thirty thousand transmission events — a couple of million cell divisions — is a long time for a cancer to adapt.


  1. Even most viral cancers are probably dead ends, because many viral cancers represent abortive viral replication.[]
  2. DNA variation of the mammalian major histocompatibility complex reflects genomic diversity and population history.
    Yuhki N, O’Brien SJ
    Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (1990) 87:836–840.[]
  3. Molecular Genetic Insights on Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) Ecology and Conservation in Namibia
    Laurie L. Marker, Alison J. Pearks Wilkerson, Ronald J. Sarno, Janice Martenson, Christian Breitenmoser-Würsten, Stephen J. O’Brien, and Warren E. Johnson
    Journal of Heredity 2008 99(1):2-13; doi:10.1093/jhered/esm081[]
  4. Genetic basis for species vulnerability in the cheetah.
    O’Brien SJ, Roelke ME, Marker L, Newman A, Winkler CA, Meltzer D, Colly L, Evermann JF, Bush M, Wildt DE.
    Science. 1985 Mar 22;227(4693):1428-34

    It was suggested at the time, and is widely believed, that cheetahs are particularly susceptible to infectious diseases for this reason, but I think the evidence for this is very weak. Cheetahs have high mortality when infected with feline infectious peritonitis virus, but it’s not unusual for viruses infecting new species to have a high mortality — think SARS and avian influenza in hunans, canine distemper in seals, and feline (or something) parvovirus in dogs, all of which had high mortality in their new, MHC-diverse, host[]

  5. Rebbeck, C., Thomas, R., Breen, M., Leroi, A., & Burt, A. (2009). ORIGINS AND EVOLUTION OF A TRANSMISSIBLE CANCER Evolution DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2009.00724.x[][]
  6. Murgia, C., Pritchard, J. K., Kim, S. Y., Fassati, A., and Weiss, R. A. (2006). Clonal origin and evolution of a transmissible cancer. Cell 126, 477-487 .[][]
  7. To be fair to Murgia, they pointed out that their 250-2500 year estimate was for the divergence of the tumor, not its origin, and they specifically raised the possibility that the tumor originated earlier than dogs.[]
  8. Reddeck et al. point out that the tumor did, in fact, arise from an inbred animal[]