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Cancer: Tumour cells steal energy-generating parts from nearby immune cells

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Cancer cells use tiny tubes to reach out to nearby immune cells and capture their energy-generating mitochondria



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18 November 2021

A nanotube from a cancer cell touching two T-cells

Tanmoy Saha

Cancer cells can boost their own growth by stealing energy-generating parts from nearby immune cells.

We already knew that some cell types grow nanotubes, tentacle-like structures made of a protein called actin. The nanotubes can let one cell link itself to another so the two can transport components including mitochondria – energy-generating structures – between them.

Now we have our first evidence that cancer cells can do something similar, using nanotubes to hijack mitochondria from two types of immune cells called T-cells and natural killer T-cells, both of which can kill cancer cells.

“The fact that cancer cells send out nanoscale tentacles and suck out the mitochondria is a rather surprising finding,” says Shiladitya Sengupta at Harvard Medical School.

He and his colleagues put immune cells and cancer cells from mice in the same dish for 16 hours before taking pictures of their interactions using a microscope. They found that, on average, each cancer cell formed one nanotube with a T-cell, while most of the nanotubes were between 50 and 2000 nanometres wide.

By labelling the mitochondria inside the immune cells with a fluorescent chemical marker, the team discovered that the mitochondria were transferred towards the cancer cells along the nanotubes.

Significantly, cancer cells consumed oxygen at around double the rate and reproduced more often when they were placed in contact with T-cells for 16 hours, compared with a control group of cancer cells that were grown in the presence of T-cells but were physically separated from them.

This suggests that stealing mitochondria helps cancer cells generate energy and grow. Consistent with this idea, cancer cells grown in the presence of physically separated T-cells reproduced and respired at a similar rate to cells grown in the absence of T-cells.

Meanwhile, T-cells consumed less oxygen and decreased in number when cultured in contact with the cancer cells, suggesting that the loss of mitochondria reduced the immune cells’ ability to survive and grow.

Similar experiments involving human cells from cancers of the thymus and breast found evidence that these mitochondria are transferred along nanotubes, too. The researchers also discovered that a drug that partially reduced nanotube formation between T-cells and cancer cells roughly halved tumour volumes in mice, as well as increasing the density of T-cells in tumours when used alongside a clinically available treatment called PD1 blockade, compared with a control treatment.

But the findings should be verified using more specific tools to block nanotube formation and mitochondrial transfer, as the drug could have other effects that reduced the tumour sizes, says Ming Tan at the China Medical University in Taichung, Taiwan.

Journal reference: Nature Nanotechnology, DOI: 10.1038/s41565-021-01000-4

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Solar storms may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in a given year

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In an approximate 11-year cycle, the sun blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which may disrupt our body clock and ultimately affect our heart



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17 June 2022

A solar storm

Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

Solar storms that disrupt Earth’s magnetic field may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in the US in a given year.

The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. During periods of high activity, it blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field.

These so-called solar storms can cause glitches in our power grids and bring down Earth-orbiting satellites. A handful of studies have also hinted that they increase the risk of …

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UK Covid infection rate rising, with more than a million cases in England | Coronavirus

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Coronavirus infections are rising in the UK, figures have revealed, with experts noting the increase is probably down to the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in the community in England are thought to have had Covid – around 1.13 million people.

The figure is even higher, at one in 45, in both Wales and Northern Ireland, while it was highest in Scotland where, in the week ending 10 June, one in 30 people are thought to have been infected.

While the figures remain below the peak levels of infection seen earlier this year, when around one in 13 people in England had Covid, the findings are a rise on the previous week where one in 70 people in England were thought to be infected. Furthermore, the data reveals increases in all regions of England, except the north-east, and across all age groups.

Experts say that a key factor in the increase is probably the rise of the Covid variants of concern BA.4 and BA.5.

“Infections have increased across all four UK nations, driven by rising numbers of people infected with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.

While Steel said it remained too early to say if this was the start of another wave, others have warned it may already have begun, with increased mixing and travelling among other factors fuelling a rise in cases.

Among concerns scientists have raised are that BA.4, BA.5 and another variant on the rise, BA.2.12.1, replicate more efficiently in human lung cells than BA.2.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the latest figures were not surprising, and might rise further.

“This increase in infection prevalence is likely due to the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which as we have seen elsewhere in Europe, appear to be able to escape immunity generated from previous Omicron subvariants,” she said.

“It is therefore possible that we will continue to see some growth in infection prevalence in the coming weeks and consequently an increase in hospitalisations, although these subvariants do not currently appear to result in any significantly changed severity profile. This does however serve as a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over.”

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NHS to offer women in England drug that cuts recurrence of breast cancer | Breast cancer

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Thousands of women in England with breast cancer are to benefit from a new pill on the NHS which reduces the risk of the disease coming back.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given the green light to abemaciclib, which cuts the chance of breast cancer returning after a patient has had surgery to remove a tumour.

Trials showed that patients who had the drug with hormone therapy had a more than 30% improved chance of their cancer not coming back after surgery, compared with hormone therapy alone.

“It’s fantastic thousands of women with this type of primary breast cancer will now have an additional treatment option available on the NHS to help further reduce the risk of the disease coming back,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now.

“The fear of breast cancer returning or spreading to other parts of their body and becoming incurable can cause considerable anxiety for so many women and their loved ones.

“New effective treatments such as abemaciclib, which can offer more women the chance to further reduce the risk of the disease recurring, are therefore extremely welcome and this is an important step change in the drug options available for this group of patients.”

The twice-a-day pill is suitable for women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-positive early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence who have had surgery. About 4,000 women will benefit initially, Nice said.

Helen Knight, the interim director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said the draft recommendation came less than a month after abemaciclib received its licence.

“The fact that we have been able to produce draft recommendations so quickly is testament to the success of our ambition to support patient access to clinically and cost effective treatments as early as possible,” said Knight. “Until now there have been no targeted treatments for people with this type of breast cancer.

“Abemaciclib with hormone therapy represents a significant improvement in how it is treated because being able to have a targeted treatment earlier after surgery will increase the chance of curing the disease and reduce the likelihood of developing incurable advanced disease.”

Abemaciclib works by targeting and inhibiting proteins in cancer cells which allow the cancer to divide and grow. It normally costs £2,950 for a packet of 56 150mg-tablets, but the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has agreed an undisclosed discounted price for NHS England.

“Thanks in part to this latest deal struck by NHS England, NHS patients will be able to access another new targeted drug for a common and aggressive form of breast cancer,” said Prof Peter Johnson, the cancer director of NHS England.

“Abemaciclib, when used alongside a hormone therapy, offers a new, doubly targeted, treatment option, helping to increase the chances of beating the cancer for good, as well as meeting the NHS’s commitment to delivering improved cancer care under our long-term plan.”

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