The Secrets in Our Cells

How your body's chemistry can predict your future

Personalised medicine is an exciting new area for cancer research
Personalised medicine is an exciting new area for cancer research
 
There was a time when people who wanted to know their future would visit a palm reader. These days it’s scientists who are helping to uncover what the future has in store for us. All over the world, scientists are researching biomarkers: minute physiological anomalies in our bodies that provide clues as to the kinds of medical conditions that we’re predisposed to and the treatment options that may best suit us as individuals.
 
We all have very small differences in our genetic code; these differences often have no discernible impact on our lives, but identifying them provides an insight into current medical conditions and the issues we may face in the future – and with understanding comes power. If we know that we’re susceptible to a particular kind of condition or that a particular treatment may benefit us, then we can do a lot more to prevent ill health. With treatments tailored to the individual patient’s genetic code, we can stamp out disease before it has the chance to strike.
 
The hard work of scientists has already resulted in the identification of many different types of biomarker for many different diseases, but for Diamond scientist Tina Geraki and users, Prof M. Farquharson (McMaster University, Canada) and clinical collaborator Prof. Adrian Harris (Oxford), it’s all about trace metals in the body.
 
Metals play an important role in the regulation of our bodily processes. They are the force behind biological proteins, the building blocks of life which are responsible for regulating our cells; however in some cases an excess of metals can be a sign of something gone awry. Prof Farquharson, Prof Harris, and their colleagues are investigating the presence of trace metals in tissue from breast cancer patients. The team have noted both increased metal content in cancerous tissue and a correlation between more metals and more aggressive breast cancer tumours. This may be because as a tumour grows it needs more support – more blood flow, more nutrients. The proteins involved in this process need metals such as iron, zinc, and copper to function, hence the increased concentration of metals in cancerous tissue.
A selection of 100 different tumour sections on one glass slide. Bottom – The boxes on the left demarcate the tumour areas (darker colour), and the three boxes to the right show metal concentration (also darker colour) in virtually the same area. Image courtesy of Tina Geraki, Adrian Harris, and Michael Farquharson
A selection of 100 different tumour sections on one glass slide. Bottom – The boxes on the left demarcate the tumour areas (darker colour), and the three boxes to the right show metal concentration (also darker colour) in virtually the same area. Image courtesy of Tina Geraki, Adrian Harris, and Michael Farquharson

Iron is necessary for metabolism and growth of cancers, which explains why the team found a high concentration of this metal in breast cancer tumours. Copper was found to be high in the blood vessels near the tumour and is known to be important for their growth. Finally, zinc was high in a subset of breast cancers that are stimulated by oestrogens. Zinc allows these hormones to signal breast cancer to grow, and this may be a useful biomarker for patients who are resistant to standard anti-oestrogen treatments such as Tamoxifen.

These findings have important implications for breast cancer diagnostics, monitoring, and treatment. As a prognostic tool, oncologists could use the metal concentration in patients’ bodies to assess the severity of the cancer. Most importantly, this information may prove useful in developing new treatment options. Some breast tumours appear deficient in iron, and using drugs to lower iron content even more may block the growth of such tumours; drugs that do this are currently in clinical trials. A drug binding copper is also being tested in patients to remove the copper and stop the blood vessels supplying nutrients to the cancer. In the future, these drugs may help doctors to provide breast cancer patients with treatments that are tailored to the unique chemistry of their body.
 
The findings presented here are specific to the type of tumours investigated; cancers are extremely versatile and do not conform to neat patterns, so developing effective treatments is a real challenge. Tina comments: “The road to successful cancer treatment is full of surprises and the best way to tackle it is to cleverly combine knowledge from many different sources. We hope that our contribution will add a little bit of something to this long process.”
Senior support scientist Tina Geraki (far right) and the rest of the team on I18
Senior support scientist Tina Geraki (far right) and the rest of the team on I18

All human beings are different. Metals are involved in a number of different processes, so an excess of metals could mean nothing for some people and it could prove very significant for others. It’s not as straightforward as deciding that excess metals are always a bad thing; however this team’s findings indicate that metal content could be used as an important biomarker in breast cancer cases, giving an insight into the individual disease characteristics and providing a potential new treatment option.

This new research highlights the potential of personalised medicine: a medical approach to healthcare which looks to tailor treatment to each patient based on their unique genetic code. By using biomarkers to indicate the chemical makeup of a person’s body, doctors can create a treatment programme that is completely personalised; this makes treatment more effective and increases the chance of a positive outcome for patients.
 
There’s no doubt that science is helping to advance medicine and the way we approach the treatment of disease. The potential of biomarkers and personalised medicine is yet to be fully realised, but with scientists like Tina Geraki, Prof Farquharson, Prof Harris, and their team on the case, advanced new approaches to medicine are becoming more feasible every day. So if you really want to know what the future has in store for you, just remember, the answer’s not in your palm, it’s in your cells.
 

Read more about cutting edge research in Diamond's magazine: