The butterfly effect in cancer

Fans of Chaos know all about the butterfly, where a tiny change in air current produced by a butterfly’s wings in Brazil leads to a typhoon in Java. Could such a thing happen in cell biology? [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 112 pp. 1131 – 1136 ’15 ] comes close.

The Cancer Genome Project has spent a ton of money looking at all the mutations of all our protein coding genes which occur in various types of cancers. It was criticized as we already knew that cancer is effectively a hypermutable state, and that it would just prove the obvious. Well it did, but it also showed us just what a formidable problem cancer actually is.

For instance [ Nature vol. 489 pp. 519 – 525 ’12 ] is report from the Cancer Genome Atlas of 178 cases of squamous cell cancer of the lung. There are a mean of 360 exonic mutations, 165 genomic rearrangements, and 323 copy number alterations per tumor. The technical details in the rest of the paragraph can be safely ignored but the point is that there no consistent pattern of mutation was found (except for p53 which is mutated in over 50% of all types of cancer, which we knew long before the Cancer Genome Atlas). Recurrent mutations were found in 11 genes. p53 was mutated in nearly all. Previously unreported loss of function mutations were seen in the class I major histocompatibility (HLA-A). Several pathways were altered relatively consistently (NFE2L2, KEAP1 in 34%, squamous differentiation genes in 44%, PI3K genes in 47% and CDKN2A and RB1 in 72%). EGFR and kRAS mutations are rare in squamous cell cancer of the lung (but quite common in adenocarcinoma). Alterations in FGFR are quite common in squamous cell carcinomas.

This sort of thing (which has been found in all the many types of tumors studied by the Cancer Genome Atlas) lead to a degree of hopelessness in looking for the holy grail of a single ‘driver mutation’ which leads to cancer with its attendant genomic instability.

All is not lost however.

MCF-10A is an immortalized epithelial cell line derived from human breast tissue. It is capable of continuous growth, but is far from normal: (1) an abnormal complement of chromosomes ) (2) threefold amplification of the MYC oncogene, and (3) deletion of a known tumor suppressor . It does lack some mutations found in breast cancer. For instance, the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2 (ERRBB2) is not amplified. The cell line doesen’t express the estrogen and progesterone receptors — making it similar to triple negative breast cancer.

A single amino acid mutation (Arginine for Histidine at amino acid #1047 ) in the catalytic subunit of a very important protein kinase (p110alpha of the PIK3CA gene) was put into the MCF-10A cell line (which they call MCF-1A-H1047R). The mutation was chosen because it is one of the most frequently encountered cancer specific mutations known. Exome sequencing of the entire genome showed that this was the only change — but the control sequences outside the exons weren’t studied, a classic case of the protein centric style of molecular biology.

In the (admittedly not completely normal) cell line, the mutation produced a cellular reorganization that far exceeds the known signaling activities of PI3K. The proetins expressed were stimilar to the protein and RNA signatures of basal breast cancer. The changes far exceeded the known effects of PIK3CA signaling. The phosphoproteins of MCF-1A-H1047R are extremely different. Inhibitors of the kinase induce only a partial reversion to the normal phenotype.

They plan to study the epigenome. This is signifcant as breast cancers are said in the paper to have tons of mutations changing amino acids in proteins (4,000 per tumor). In my opinion they should do whole genome sequencing of MCF-A1-H1047R as well.

The mutant becomes fully transformed whan a second mutation (of KRAS, an oncogene) is put in. This allows them to form tumors in nude mice. Recall that nude mice (another rodent beloved of experimental biologists — see the previous post on the Naked Mole Rat) has a very limited immune system, allowing grafts of human cells to take root and proliferate.

How close the initial cell line is to normal is another matter. Work on a similar cell line the (3T3 fibroblast) has been criticized because that cell is so close to neoplastic. At least the mutant MCF-1A-H1047R cells aren’t truly neoplastic as they won’t produce tumors in nude mice. However, mutating just one more gene (KRAS) turns MCF-1A-H1047R malignant when transplanted.

The paper is also useful for showing how little we really understand about cause and effect in the cell. PI3K has been intensively studied for years because it is one of the major players telling cells to grow in size rather than divide. And yet “the mutation produced a cellular reorganization that far exceeds the known signaling activities of PI3K”

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