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Project GENIE
Richard Carvajal (left) and Raul Rabadan are lead PIs on Project GENIE

Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) has recently joined 11 new institutions to collaborate on Project GENIE, an ambitious consortium organized by the  American Association for Cancer Research . An international cancer registry built through data sharing,  Project GENIE , which stands for Genomics Evidence Neoplasia Information Exchange, brings together leading institutions in cancer research and treatment in order to provide the statistical power needed to improve clinical decision-making, particularly in the case of rare cancers and rare genetic variants in common cancers. Additionally, the registry, established in 2016, is powering novel clinical and translational research. In its first two years, Project GENIE has been able to accumulate and make public more than 39,000 cancer genomic records, de-identified to maintain patient privacy. 

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.”

Breast cancer cells

A histological slide of cancerous breast tissue. The pink "riverways" are normal connective tissue while areas stained blue are cancer cells. (Source: National Cancer Institute)

Investigators at Columbia University Medical Center and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have discovered a molecular signaling mechanism that drives a specific type of highly aggressive breast cancer. As reported in a paper in Genes & Development, a team led by Jose Silva and Andrea Califano determined that the gene STAT3 is a master regulator of breast tumors lacking hormone receptors but testing positive for human epidermal growth receptor 2 (HR-/HER2+). The researchers also characterized a pathway including IL-6, JAK2, STAT3, and S100A8/9 — genes already known to play important roles within the immune response — as being essential for the survival of HR-/HER2+ cancer cells. Additional tests showed that disrupting this pathway severely limits the ability of these cells to survive.

These findings are particularly exciting because the pathway the researchers identified contains multiple targets for which known FDA-approved drugs exist. The paper reports that when these drugs were tested in disease models, the cancer cells showed a dramatic response, suggesting promising strategies for the treatment of the HR-/HER2+ cancer subtype. A clinical trial is now underway to investigate the effects of these approaches in humans.

Reposted from the Columbia University Medical Center Newsroom. Find the original article here .

Cancer bottlenecks
In an N-of-1 study, researchers at Columbia University use techniques from systems biology to analyze genomic information from an individual patient’s tumor. The goal is to identify key genes, called master regulators  (green circles), which, while not mutated, are nonetheless necessary for the survival of cancer cells. 

Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) researchers are developing a new approach to cancer clinical trials, in which therapies are designed and tested one patient at a time. The patient’s tumor is “reverse engineered” to determine its unique genetic characteristics and to identify existing U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved drugs that may target them.

Rather than focusing on the usual mutated genes, only a very small number of which can be used to guide successful therapeutic strategies, the method analyzes the regulatory logic of the cell to identify genes and gene pairs that are critical for the survival of the tumor but are not critical for normal cells. FDA-approved drugs that inhibit these genes are then tested in a mouse model of the patient’s tumor and, if successful, considered as potential therapeutic agents for the patient — a journey from bedside to bench and back again that takes about six to nine months.

“We are taking a rather different approach to tailor therapy to the individual cancer patient,” said principal investigator Andrea Califano, PhD, Clyde and Helen Wu Professor of Chemical Systems Biology and chair of CUMC’s new Department of Systems Biology. “If we have learned one thing about this disease, it’s that it has tremendous heterogeneity both across patients and within individual patients. When we expect different patients with the same tumor subtype or different cells within the same tumor to respond the same way to a treatment, we make a huge simplification. Yet this is how clinical studies are currently conducted. To address this problem, we are trying to understand how tumors are regulated one at a time. Eventually, we hope to be able to treat patients not on an individual basis, but based on common vulnerabilities of the cancer cellular machinery, of which genetic mutations are only indirect evidence. Genetic alterations are clearly responsible for tumorigenesis but control points in molecular networks may be better therapeutic targets.”

Personalized Medicine

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi, courtesy of Columbia Medicine.

The cover article of the Spring 2014 issue of Columbia Medicine reports on a new, Columbia University-wide effort to harness the potential of new scientific approaches and technological developments to advance the personalized treatment of cancer and other diseases. Announced in February by Columbia President Lee Bollinger, an interdisciplinary task force has been formed to coordinate the scientific, policy, and clinical components necessary to achieve this goal. The Department of Systems Biology, including its Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics and JP Sulzberger Columbia Genome Center, has been identified as a key partner in this interdisciplinary effort. As the article reports:

Rapidly evolving technologies that make DNA sequencing dramatically faster and less expensive along with new technologies to monitor virtually all aspects of cell physiology have led to the generation of unprecedented amounts of information (big data) that is starting to yield to new computational approaches and high speed computers, all of which promise to make diagnosis and treatment as patient-specific and precise as possible.

To harness the potential created by these scientific advances for the benefit of patients, [College of Physicians & Surgeons] Dean Lee Goldman, MD, has made personalized medicine a key goal of the medical school’s strategic plan. “At Columbia, we have enthusiastic consensus in support of personalized medicine—the personalized application of scientific advances to modern diagnosis and treatment, easily accessible and attentive care for the people who entrust us with their health, and personalized education for each of our individual students,” says Dr. Goldman…

At the center of Columbia’s personalized medicine effort is the new Department of Systems Biology, which brings together researchers specializing in molecular biology, genetics, computational biology and bioinformatics, structural biology, mathematics, chemistry and chemical biology, physics, computer science, and other fields. According to founding director and chair Andrea Califano, PhD, the Clyde and Helen Wu Professor of Chemical Systems Biology, the new department seeks to provide an in-depth, systemwide characterization of all molecular interactions. It is this systems-level approach to disease biology that can systematically identify disease drivers and druggable targets for the 90 percent of cancer patients who lack a clearly actionable genetic mutation. This has become possible only in recent years through major advances in science and technology that require a fully interdisciplinary approach.

The article describes how research by Department of Systems Biology faculty members including Dr. Califano, Nicholas Tatonetti, Brent Stockwell, and Tuuli Lappalainen, along with that of investigators in departments across the university, is contributing to this ambitious initiative. Read the complete article here.

Researchers in the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology and Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center have determined that measuring the expression levels of three genes associated with aging can be used to predict the aggressiveness of seemingly low-risk prostate cancer. Use of this three-gene biomarker, in conjunction with existing cancer-staging tests, could help physicians better determine which men with early prostate cancer can be safely followed with “active surveillance” and spared the risks of prostate removal or other invasive treatment. The findings were published today in the online edition of Science Translational Medicine.

More than 200,000 new cases of prostate cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S. “Most of these cancers are slow growing and will remain so, and thus they do not require treatment,” said study leader Cory Abate-Shen, Michael and Stella Chernow Professor of Urological Oncology at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC). “The problem is that, with existing tests, we cannot identify the small percentage of slow-growing tumors that will eventually become aggressive and spread beyond the prostate. The three-gene biomarker could take much of the guesswork out of the diagnostic process and ensure that patients are neither overtreated nor undertreated.”