11th International PhD Student Cancer Conference

A glorious three day bonanza of beer, brains and BRAF. — Tom Mortimer, PhD student at The Francis Crick Institute


On Wednesday morning, June 14th, twenty PhD students from The Francis Crick Institute woke up early and made their way from one of London’s five airports to Berlin. Specifically to Campus Berlin-Buch – the geographic equivalent of Clare Hall Laboratories, situated right next to the M25, the London Orbital Motorway, 25 kilometres from the city centre – home to the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC).


On the campus of the MDC

We were attending the 11th international PhD student cancer conference (IPSCC), which was initiated at the London Research Institute (LRI), one of the founding partners of The Crick. In fact, the opening remarks were held by Holger Gerhardt, a former group leader at the LRI. He immediately gave the meeting a political flavour by stressing how important diversity is within research, openly showing his disdain for Brexit.

The conference was organised by PhD students at the MDC for other students studying cancer across Europe, with delegates from the UK, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. The talks were spread over three days and the topics ranged from in silico computational biology and large-scale genomics approaches to cell signalling and in vivo cancer metabolism. Strikingly, when speakers were given suggestions or asked questions they seemed sincere in their responses, especially when they didn’t know the answers. One of the talks most out of the ordinary was given by Joseph Hodgson from the CRUK Beatson Institute in Glasgow: he uses fruit flies to study the process of weight loss and muscle wasting due to cancer (also known as cachexia).


Joseph Hodgson showing fluorescent images of fruit fly muscle wasting (right)

The prize for the best talk went to Rajbir Nath Batra, from the CRUK Cambridge Institute, who studies DNA methylation dynamics in breast cancer in Carlos Caldas’ group. The best poster by far was created by Cora Olpe, also at the Cambridge Institute, who is trying to understand the chemopreventive effect of aspirin on colorectal cancer in the group of Douglas Winton.


Cora Olpe’s poster made use of Aspirin’s chemical formula to great effect

On the social side of things, conversation was enabled by providing generous amounts of delicious German beer as well as having us participate in career workshops, including on grant writing, conducting clinical trials, science communication and on becoming an entrepreneur. All in all it was great to get the opportunity of meeting the people who might be our future collaborators.

The keynote speakers were Mónica Bettencourt-Dias (Gulbenkian Institute, Lisbon) and Madalena Tarsounas (Institute for Radiation Oncology, Oxford). Lastly, Klaus Rajewsky (MDC, Berlin), a world-renowned immunologist, gave a lecture on his “life in science”. He ended the conference also on a political note, juxtaposing the 1975 referendum on the UK’s membership to the European common market with the Brexit referendum, also stressing how important international collaboration and diversity are within science.

Next year the 12th IPSCC will be hosted by The Francis Crick Institute. We hope to have a great turnout (especially in the face of Brexit) – see you there!


March for Science

London, Saturday April 22nd 2017

The weather is changeable as I leave the flat in the late morning. Sunny spells – dazzling my eyes clad in contact lenses – are abruptly overtaken by the English drizzle that leaves me damp and puzzled because the sun has already regained its prominence. I’m on the Westbound Piccadilly line wearing a Cancer Research UK t-shirt that reads, “I’m a researcher fighting cancer”, and I can’t tell whether I’m getting more looks than is usual on the Tube. I alight at South Kensington to meet a friend of mine, the bubbleologist Li Shen. (And yes, that is now a technical term. Li, who has a degree in mathematics, is a PhD student studying the physics of bubbles, which has far-reaching implications: from the amount of bubbles generated by different types of beer to the undesired foaming of lubricants used in oil extraction.) But we’re not just here to catch up, although it is conveniently close to his lab/office at Imperial College. No, we’re here to join the March for Science. [All of the following images were taken either by Li or by me.]

science march banner.jpg

According to the BBC, “thousands of people” joined the march, the first of its kind taking place on the annual Earth Day and organised around the world. I think the event probably got part of its boost from the Women’s Marches that took place on January 21st, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Certainly, the protesters on both occasions had much in common.

destroy the patriarchy, not the planet

One of the most notable differences between the two events, however, was that this second protest was certainly smaller and also much quieter. I suppose it’s true that scientists – and yes, the marchers were mainly scientists and their relatives, partners and close friends – are a little bit shy and socially awkward. Amongst the stewards, one was trying to get the following chant off the ground, with little success, “Scientists are good at generating questions, not so good at slogans”…

french embassy

Here’s a blurry Li in the foreground, with a sharp French embassy in the background. Walking by I couldn’t help but send what’s known as a “Stoßgebet” in German to the high heavens; roughly translates as a quick (secular) prayer. For now we can breathe a brief sigh of relief after the first round of the presidential elections. Hopefully Europe, science and European Research Council funding will be able to continue to prosper.

knowledge trumps ignorance

Speaking of Trump, the March for Science event emanated from Washington DC, where it started as a protest against fake news, alternative facts and a world in which experts are regarded as worthy of derision. Honestly, as with the Women’s March, I don’t know and can’t tell how much impact marches like these actually have in politics, but as a start there was significant media coverage. Even Buzzfeed compiled its list of top banners and slogans (some scientists do have a sense of humour). My personal favourite was this one, of course.

big brains

I do know that within three months I went to two marches, the first two of my life. Ideally, I won’t have to go to any more and will be able to spend my Saturdays in the lab, where a diligent PhD student should be (and where I know some of my colleagues were). Lastly, let’s give reason, described by Wikipedia as being “the capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information”, a big thumbs up.


Back to Cell Biology

Because you’ve just gotta love cells. And because this post is about a publication in The Journal of Cell Biology, published by the Rockefeller University Press. In the summer of 2014 I spent almost three months doing an undergraduate research programme at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the lab of Lloyd Trotman and under the everyday supervision of Dawid G. Nowak. I mainly helped Dawid establish the CRISPR/Cas9 method in the lab to study several types of cancers, including lung and prostate cancer. The first story, in which we used CRISPR to knockout a potent oncogene called Myc, was published almost two years ago (Nowak et al, 2015). Now Dawid is the co-first author on a new paper studying a tumour suppressor protein called PTEN (Chen, Nowak, … Wang, … et al, 2017).

Here is an eLife-style digest of the manuscript. Tumours usually evolve when cells gain the function of so-called oncogenes and lose the function of one or more so-called tumour suppressor genes. One of the most frequently deleted or down-regulated tumour suppressors is a protein called PTEN. Some cancer types, including some types of lung and prostate cancer, do not always delete the two gene copies coding for the PTEN protein, but the levels of PTEN protein in those cancer cells is still kept low. Therefore we wanted to find out which pathways in cancer cells lower the PTEN protein levels. Knowing about this regulation could lead to the development of new therapies that aim at stabilising PTEN protein.

First, we used both mouse and human cancer cell lines to investigate the movement of PTEN between the cytoplasm and the nucleus. We hypothesised that PTEN might be protected from being degraded in the nucleus, since the enzymes that break proteins down are generally found in the cytoplasm. Biochemical experiments showed that PTEN was moved into the nucleus by a protein called importin-11. Next, and this is the experiment I performed, we deleted importin-11 using CRISPR/Cas9 and saw that PTEN abundance decreased, while active/phosphorylated Akt, an oncogene, increased:


Western blot showing CRISPR/Cas9 deletion of importin-11 in human prostate cancer cell lines – copied directly from Fig. 2 of Chen, Nowak et al, 2017

Further experiments conducted in the cell lines supported the following model, in which PTEN is shuttled into the nucleus by importin-11 where it is protected from degradation by the ubiquitin ligase system:


Model of PTEN shuttling: when importin-11 is present PTEN can “hide” in the nucleus (left), but when importin-11 is deleted/not functioning, PTEN accumulates in the cytoplasm where it can be targeted for degradation – copied directly from Fig. 4 of Chen, Nowak et al, 2017

Next we wanted to know whether this mechanism of keeping levels of PTEN low is also important for preventing tumours. When importin-11 was experimentally down-regulated in mice (the gene for importin-11 was not completely deleted but its mutation is said to be “hypomorphic”), the mice developed and eventually died from lung cancers, unlike the healthy control mice:


Lesion-free survival curve of importin-11 mutant (red) versus control (black) mice – copied directly from Fig. 5 of Chen, Nowak et al, 2017

Similar results were also obtained for prostate tumours in mice. Lastly, we analysed publicly available data of human prostate cancer patients. Low levels of importin-11 (either by genetic deletion or low gene expression) correlated with higher rates of tumour recurrence, suggesting that importin-11 also acts as a tumour suppressor in some types of human cancer. Future experiments may involve conducting more sophisticated mouse experiments in which importin-11 is deleted in specific organs, together with the activation of known oncogenes. This work may also lead to studies that try to find ways of stabilising PTEN protein.

So that’s it. Publication number three! But I want to end on a slightly more philosophical/political note. Dawid, one of the two first authors, taught me a lot during that summer programme, has been supportive ever since, and I enjoy keeping in touch with him. At the moment he is looking for an independent research position – he is enthusiastic about science and very driven. He’s had interviews all over the place, both in Europe and North America. However, Dawid is Polish and is now having to re-think his options since neither the UK nor the USA seem particularly appealing places for him anymore. We live in a crazy world but I hope this won’t stop him from getting the lab he deserves, in the most tolerant place possible.


Chen M, Nowak DG, Narula N, Robinson B, Watrud K, Ambrico A, Herzka TM, Zeeman ME, Minderer M, Zheng W, Ebbesen SH, Plafker KS, Stahlhut C, Wang VMY, Wills L, Nasar A, Castillo-Martin M, Cordon-Cardo C, Wilkinson JE, Powers S et al. (2017) The nuclear transport receptor Importin-11 is a tumor suppressor that maintains PTEN protein. The Journal of Cell Biology DOI: 10.1083/jcb.201604025

Nowak DG, Cho H, Herzka T, Watrud K, DeMarco DV, Wang VM, Senturk S, Fellmann C, Ding D, Beinortas T, Kleinman D, Chen M, Sordella R, Wilkinson JE, Castillo-Martin M, Cordon-Cardo C, Robinson BD, Trotman LC (2015) MYC Drives Pten/Trp53-Deficient Proliferation and Metastasis due to IL6 Secretion and AKT Suppression via PHLPP2. Cancer Discovery 5: 636-651

CRISPR Digest #13

It’s time to go back to some of the basic biology behind the whole CRISPR gene-editing hype. This week Cell and Molecular Cell published two nice papers on the why and how of CRISPR.

In one of my earliest posts on this blog, CRISPR Craze, I gave a brief overview of how CRISPR works in prokaryotes. I’ll reiterate here: bacteria and archaea have evolved a response against invading pathogens, often bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria), which has been compared to our mammalian immune system. In essence, CRISPR allows bacteria to recognise when a pathogen, and specifically its DNA, is infecting the cell again. During the first round of infection the bacterium incorporates parts of the pathogen’s DNA in its own genome and therefore keeps a record or memory of that invader. Then, during a second round of infection, the DNA can be transcribed into RNA by the bacterium, which is used as a “guide” to detect the invading DNA (since the RNA and DNA will be complementary). Additionally, the guiding RNA will bring/guide one (or several, depending on the exact type of system) so-called CRISPR-associated protein (Cas) to the invading DNA. The Cas protein(s) is then responsible for cleaving the pathogen’s DNA and thus thwarting the infection. CRISPR in a nutshell. Easy.

If you think about it, the findings from Pawluk et al., 2016 will not come as a surprise. First, bacteriophages infect bacteria. Second, bacteria evolve an intricate mechanism to defend themselves against the viruses and other, potentially harmful “mobile genetic elements”. So third – the logical conclusion – bacteriophages find a way to shut down the CRISPR defence. Pawluk et al. found that the Cas9 protein in the bacterial species Neisseria meningitidis can be inhibited by phage anti-CRISPR proteins:


Schematic representation of the anti-CRISPR system, which can also be used in mammalian gene-editing system – image copied directly from Pawluk et al, 2016

In particular, Pawluk et al. discovered three acr genes in N. meningitidis, which code for the Acr proteins. The acr genes are incorporated into the bacterial genome but originally came from bacteriophages or mobile genetic elements. Biochemical experiments showed that the Acr proteins can bind directly to Cas9 and stop it from cutting DNA. Lastly, Pawluk et al. demonstrated that the Acr proteins can be expressed in mammalian cells to inhibit Cas9 activity there as well. This means that future CRISPR genome-editing experiments can be fine-tuned by switching off Cas9. Being able to turn Cas9 off may be especially important for future gene therapy treatments, since preventing Cas9 from being active for too long will reduce its off-target/side effects.

The second interesting paper for this digest, Patterson et al., 2016, investigated how bacterial cells regulate when their CRISPR system is active or not. The decision to have a fully active “immune system” or not is important because it is energetically costly to have the defence mechanism in place when there is little or no threat. Patterson et al. used a species of bacteria called Serratia to examine how the density of the bacterial population influences whether CRISPR is turned on or off. Many bacterial species use a system called quorum sensing to assess whether there are many other bacterial cells nearby. For example, Serratia cells produce and secrete a small chemical (of the homoserine lactone class), which, when present in sufficient quantities, can change which genes the bacterial cells express. When the population of cells is sparse the chemical does not reach a high enough concentration to have an effect. The experiments in this paper show that at high concentrations of the small chemical, and thus at a high cell density, Serratia cells de-repress the cas genes. In other words, when there are a lot of cells in one place they collectively switch on their immune system. This makes sense: infections spread more easily among humans in crowded places and it is similar in bacterial populations. Overall, these two papers are a beautiful demonstration of how “basic” research into highly relevant and applicable technologies are still, and will continue to be, important.

Lastly, since this is the last post before Christmas and the New Year, and possibly even until we say good-bye to President Obama, let me share this resource with you:


Screenshot from the Altmetric website listing its top 100 most-discussed journal articles of 2016

Altmetrics are “metrics and qualitative data that are complementary to traditional, citation-based metrics” and track how much and in what form scientific research is being discussed. For example, a useful but very technical paper may get many citations in the scientific literature but might not be widely talked about by people outside that field. Other new papers, that may be controversial or have wide-ranging societal implications, will also be distributed in other ways (e.g. on Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia and on blogs). So, for your festive reading, I recommend having a browse through Altmetrics’ 100 most-discussed articles from this year. Merry Christmas!


Patterson AG, Jackson SA, Taylor C, Evans GB, Salmond GPC, Przybilski R, Staals RHJ, Fineran PC Quorum Sensing Controls Adaptive Immunity through the Regulation of Multiple CRISPR-Cas Systems. Molecular Cell 64: 1102-1108

Pawluk A, Amrani N, Zhang Y, Garcia B, Hidalgo-Reyes Y, Lee J, Edraki A, Shah M, Sontheimer EJ, Maxwell KL, Davidson AR (2016) Naturally Occurring Off-Switches for CRISPR-Cas9. Cell 167: 1829-1838.e1829

Behrens lab retreat 2016

Imagine spending a weekend in these idyllic surroundings in the Peak District with nothing to do but talk about and discuss science.


The Peak Mermaid Inn – taken at sunrise on November 13th 2016

Well, that’s exactly what we, the Behrens lab, did last weekend. We invited a keynote speaker, Roland Rad, and Dieter Saur’s group from the Technical University of Munich to join us. Each of us gave a talk about the most interesting or exciting aspects of our projects and in between we drank copious amounts of coffee. In the evenings we cooked enough food to feed a small regiment, drank beer, played pool, darts or table football, all punctuated by heated debates about science. Although this wasn’t a relaxing weekend by normal standards, it was motivating and inspiring and a good reminder of why I enjoy being a scientist: a combination of rational and logical thinking, curiosity and the drive to learn new things for their own sake, all shared with people who, by and large, know more than I do and think differently.

Of the talks I just want to highlight one in particular, because my project also uses one of the techniques mentioned. Dieter Saur is a medical doctor and has his own lab group, which studies mainly gastrointestinal diseases, including pancreatic cancer. In a recently published paper (Schönhuber et al, 2014) they describe an experimental system in mice called the “dual recombinase system“. This is a genetic system that allows the study of complex diseases such as cancer. Until recently it was only possible to simultaneously switch on a gene that drives tumour progression and switch off a gene that prevents tumour formation in a cell type or organ of interest (e.g. in the pancreas). Using the dual recombinase system it is possible to make genetic alterations sequentially. For example, in the beginning of a mouse’s development one can activate a potent tumour driver called Ras and delete an important tumour suppressor called p53. And then, once a tumour has formed, one can additionally delete genes that may be important to maintain the established tumour. Alternatively, the dual system also makes it possible to make genetic changes to the normal cells surrounding the (pancreatic) tumour. If all goes well then I will be able to use these tools to conduct experiments like this in the next year or so.

15044797_10154563370871405_2126581266_o zip-line

Oh and admittedly we did have an activity scheduled that was slightly less scientific: we got all geared up and went on a GoApe outing. Secured by a harness and after some rigorous safety instructions we got to fly down zip lines, balance over gaping abysses and jump over the void below.

Lastly, the following week saw Queen Mary University London and Barts host the 11th UK cancer stem cell symposium. There were several interesting talks, including by group leaders at the Crick Institute, but the most unusual talk was given by a philosopher called Lucie Laplane. She did her PhD in philosophy and combined this with a research master’s in stem cell biology. Putting the two fields together she came up with a classification of (cancer) stem cells using definitions and guidelines borrowed from philosophy, applied to biology. [In general, researchers agree that stem cells are cells that can self-renew (i.e. generate new copies of themselves) and can produce differentiated/specialised daughter cells.] The most important point was how to pin down what kind of characteristic “stemness” is or what makes a stem cell a stem cell:


Framework for defining (cancer) stem cells – copied from Lucie Laplane’s talk at the symposium

For instance, in some cases a stem cell might always be a stem cell no matter what the environment is like (i.e. categorical); other stem cells may be dispositional in nature, meaning that they always have the potential to act as a stem cell but only do so in a permissive environment. Alternatively, being a stem cell might not be property of a single cell at all but rather an attribute of an entire organ (i.e. systemic). Laplane argued that the way we define (cancer) stem cells has a huge impact on how we try to treat diseases such as cancer. For example, if cancer stem cells are “systemic” then even the best therapies targeted against these cells will fail because the system/the tumour will make new cancer stem cells from other tumour cells. Hans Clevers, one of the Gods in the stem cell field, wrote a glowing review of the book here.


Laplane, Lucie. Cancer Stem Cells: Philosophy and Therapies. Harvard University Press, 2016.

Schonhuber N, Seidler B, Schuck K, Veltkamp C, Schachtler C, Zukowska M, Eser S, Feyerabend TB, Paul MC, Eser P, Klein S, Lowy AM, Banerjee R, Yang F, Lee C-L, Moding EJ, Kirsch DG, Scheideler A, Alessi DR, Varela I, Bradley A, Kind A, Schnieke AE, Rodewald H-R, Rad R, Schmid RM, Schneider G, Saur D (2014) A next-generation dual-recombinase system for time- and host-specific targeting of pancreatic cancer. Nat Med 20: 1340-1347