Eva Frederick | Whitehead Institute
January 21, 2021
When cancer is confined to one spot in the body, doctors can often treat it with surgery or other therapies. Much of the mortality associated with cancer, however, is due to its tendency to metastasize, sending out seeds of itself that may take root throughout the body. The exact moment of metastasis is fleeting, lost in the millions of divisions that take place in a tumor. “These events are typically impossible to monitor in real time,” said Whitehead Institute Member Jonathan Weissman.
Now, researchers led by Weissman, who is also a professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, have turned a CRISPR tool into a way to do just that. In a paper published January 21 in Science, Weissman’s lab, in collaboration with Nir Yosef, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and Trever Bivona, a cancer biologist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), treats cancer cells the way evolutionary biologists might look at species, mapping out an intricately detailed family tree. By examining the branches, they can track the cell’s lineage to find when a single tumor cell went rogue, spreading its progeny to the rest of the body.
“With this method, you can ask questions like, ‘How frequently is this tumor metastasizing? Where did the metastases come from? Where do they go?’” Weissman said. “By being able to follow the history of the tumor in vivo, you reveal differences in the biology of the tumor that were otherwise invisible.”
Scratch paper cells
Scientists have tracked the lineages of cancer cells in the past by comparing shared mutations and other variations in their DNA blueprints. These methods, however, depend to a certain extent on there being enough naturally occurring mutations or other markers to accurately show relationships between cells. That’s where Weissman and co-first authors Jeffrey Quinn, then a postdoctoral researcher in Weissman’s lab, and Matthew Jones, a graduate student in Weissman’s lab, saw an opportunity to use CRISPR technology — specifically, a method developed by Weissman Lab member Michelle Chan to track embryo development — to facilitate tracking. Instead of simply hoping that a cancer lineage contained enough lineage-specific markers to track, the researchers decided to use Chan’s method to add in markers themselves. “Basically, the idea is to engineer a cell that has a genomic scratchpad of DNA, that then can be ‘written’ on using CRISPR,” Weissman said. This ‘writing’ in the genome is done in such a way that it becomes heritable, meaning a cell’s grand-offspring would have the ‘writing’ of its parent cells and grandparent cells recorded in its genome.
Jeffrey J. Quinn, Matthew G. Jones, Ross A. Okimoto, Shigeki Nanjo, Michelle M. Chan, Nir Yosef, Trever G. Bivona, Jonathan S. Weissman. “Single-cell lineages reveal the rates, routes, and drivers of metastasis in cancer xenografts.” Science, Jan. 21, 2021.