Yufeng Shen
Yufeng Shen's lab is interested in developing better computational methods for identifying rare genetic variants that increase disease risk.

On the surface, birth defects and cancer might not seem to have much in common. For some time, however, scientists have observed increased cancer risk among patients with certain developmental syndromes. One well-known example is seen in children with Noonan syndrome, who have an eightfold increased risk of developing leukemia. Recently, researchers studying the genetics of autism also observed mutations in PTEN, an important tumor suppressor gene. Although such findings have been largely isolated and anecdotal, they raise the tantalizing question of whether cancer and developmental disorders might be fundamentally linked.

According to a paper recently published in the journal Human Mutation, many of these similarities might not be just coincidental, but the result of shared genetic mutations. The study, led by Yufeng Shen, an Assistant Professor in the Columbia University Departments of Systems Biology and Biomedical Informatics, together with Wendy Chung, Kennedy Family Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center, found that cancer-driving genes also make up more than a third of the risk genes for developmental disorders. Moreover, many of these genes appear to function through similar modes of action. The scientists suggest that this could make tumors “natural laboratories” for pinpointing and predicting the damaging effects of rare genetic alterations that cause developmental disorders.

“In comparison with cancer, there are relatively few patients with developmental disorders,” Shen explains, “For geneticists, this makes it hard to identify the risk genes solely based on statistical evidence of mutations from these patients. This study indicates that we should be able to use what we learn from cancer genetics — where much more data are available — to help in the interpretation of genetic data in developmental disorders.”

Master regulators of tumor homeostasis

In this rendering, master regulators of tumor homeostasis (white) integrate upstream genetic and epigenetic events (yellow) and regulate downstream genes (purple) responsible for implementing cancer programs such as proliferation and migration. CaST aims to develop systematic methods for identifying drugs capable of disrupting master regulator activity.

The Columbia University Department of Systems Biology has been named one of four inaugural centers in the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) new Cancer Systems Biology Consortium. This five-year grant will support the creation of the Center for Cancer Systems Therapeutics (CaST), a collaborative research center that will investigate the general principles and functional mechanisms that enable malignant tumors to grow, evade treatment, induce disease progression, and develop drug resistance. Using this knowledge, the Center aims to identify new cancer treatments that target master regulators of tumor homeostasis.

CaST will build on previous accomplishments in the Department of Systems Biology and its Center for Multiscale Analysis of Genomic and Cellular Networks (MAGNet), which developed several key systems biology methods for characterizing the complex molecular machinery underlying cancer. At the same time, however, the new center constitutes a step forward, as it aims to move beyond a static understanding of cancer biology toward a time-dependent framework that can account for the dynamic, ever-changing nature of the disease. This more nuanced understanding could eventually enable scientists to better predict how individual tumors will change over time and in response to treatment.

Factors affecting protein activity
Following gene transcription and translation, a protein can undergo a variety of modifications that affect its activity. By analyzing downstream gene expression patterns in single tumors, VIPER can account for these changes to identify proteins that are critical to cancer cell survival.

In a paper just published in Nature Genetics, the laboratory of Andrea Califano introduces what it describes as the first method capable of analyzing a single tumor biopsy to systematically identify proteins that drive cancerous activity in individual patients. Based on knowledge gained by modeling networks of molecular interactions in the cell, their computational algorithm, called VIPER (Virtual Inference of Protein activity by Enriched Regulon analysis), offers a unique new strategy for understanding how cancer cells survive and for identifying personalized cancer therapeutics.

Developed by Mariano Alvarez as a research scientist in the Califano laboratory, VIPER has become one of the cornerstones of Columbia University’s precision medicine initiative. Its effectiveness in cancer diagnosis and treatment planning is currently being tested in a series of N-of-1 clinical trials, which analyze the unique molecular characteristics of individual patients’ tumors to identify drugs and drug combinations that will be most effective for them. If successful, it could soon become an important component of cancer care at Columbia University Medical Center.

According to Dr. Califano, “VIPER makes it possible to find actionable proteins in 100% of cancer patients, independent of their genetic mutations. It also enables us to track tumors as they progress or relapse to determine the most appropriate therapeutic approach at different points in the evolution of disease. So far, this method is looking extremely promising, and we are excited about its potential benefits in finding novel therapeutic strategies to treat cancer patients.”

Clonal evolution in GBM tumors
The researchers' model of tumor evolution indicates that different clonal lineages branch from a common ancestral cell and then diversify, independently causing aggressive tumor behavior at different stages of disease.

Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) is the most common and most aggressive type of primary brain tumor in adults. Existing treatments against the disease are very limited in their effectiveness, meaning that in most patients tumors recur within a year. Once GBM returns, no beneficial therapeutics currently exist and prognosis is generally very poor.

To better understand how GBM evades treatment, an international team led by Antonio Iavarone and Raul Rabadan at the Columbia University Center for Topology of Cancer Evolution and Heterogeneity has been studying how the cellular composition of GBM tumors changes over the course of therapy. In a paper just published online by Nature Genetics, they provide the first sketch of the main routes of GBM tumor evolution during treatment, showing that different cellular clones within a tumor become dominant within specific tumor states. The study uncovers important general principles of tumor evolution, novel genetic markers of disease progression, and new potential therapeutic targets.

Andrew Anzalone and Sakellarios ZairisMD/PhD students Andrew Anzalone and Sakellarios Zairis combined approaches based in chemical biology, synthetic biology, and computational biology to develop a new method for protein engineering.

The ribosome is a reliable machine in the cell, precisely translating the nucleotide code carried by messenger RNAs (mRNAs) into the polypeptide chains that form proteins. But although the ribosome typically reads this code with uncanny accuracy, translation has some unusual quirks. One is a phenomenon called -1 programmed ribosomal frameshifting (-1 PRF), in which the ribosome begins reading an mRNA one nucleotide before it should. This hiccup bumps translation “out of frame,” creating a different sequence of three-nucleotide-long codons. In essence, -1 PRF thus gives a single gene the unexpected ability to code for two completely different proteins.

Recently Andrew Anzalone, an MD/PhD student in the laboratory of Virginia Cornish, set out to explore whether he could take advantage of -1 PRF to engineer cells capable of producing alternate proteins. Together with Sakellarios Zairis, another MD/PhD student in the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology, the two developed a pipeline for identifying RNA motifs capable of producing this effect, as well as a method for rationally designing -1 PRF “switches.” These switches, made up of carefully tuned strands of RNA bound to ligand-sensing aptamers, can react to the presence of a specific small molecule and reliably modulate the ratio in the production of two distinct proteins from a single mRNA. The technology, they anticipate, could offer a variety of exciting new applications for synthetic biology. A paper describing their approach and findings has been published in Nature Methods.