Studies could lead to new prognostic biomarkers and clinical laboratory diagnostics for cancer
Might fungi be involved in human cancers? Two separately published studies have found fungal DNA in various cancers in the human body. However, the researchers are unclear on how the fungi got into the cancer cells and if it is affecting the cancers’ pathology. Nevertheless, these discoveries could lead to utilizing tumor-associated fungal DNA as clinical laboratory diagnostics or prognostic biomarkers in the fight against cancer.
“The finding that fungi are commonly present in human tumors should drive us to better explore their potential effects and re-examine almost everything we know about cancer through a ‘microbiome lens,’” said Ravid Straussman, MD, PhD (above), a principal investigator at Weizmann Institute of Science and one of the authors of the study in a UCSD press release. These findings could lead to new clinical laboratory diagnostics and prognostic biomarkers. (Photo copyright: Weizmann Institute of Science.)
Microbiome Key to Cancer Biology and Detection
To perform their research, the team examined 17,401 samples of patient tissues, blood, and plasma across 35 different types of cancers in four independent cohorts. They discovered fungal DNA and cells in low abundances in many human cancers.
“The existence of fungi in most human cancers is both a surprise and to be expected,” said biologist Rob Knight, PhD, founding Director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation and Professor of Pediatrics and Computer Science and Engineering at UC San Diego in a UCSD press release. “It is surprising because we don’t know how fungi could get into tumors throughout the body. But it is also expected because it fits the pattern of healthy microbiomes throughout the body, including the gut, mouth and skin, where bacteria and fungi interact as part of a complex community.”
The main highlights of this study include:
Fungi detected in the different cancer types were often intracellular.
Multiple fungal-bacterial-immune ecologies were detected across tumors.
Intratumoral fungi stratified clinical outcomes, including immunotherapy response.
Cell-free fungal DNA found in both healthy and cancer patients in early-stage disease.
Fungi found on the human body appear as either environmental fungi, such as yeasts and molds, and commensal fungi, which live either on or inside the body. Both are typically harmless to most healthy people and can provide some benefits, such as improving gut health, but they may also be a contributing factor in some disease.
The researchers found that there were notable parallels between specific fungi and certain factors, such as age, tumor subtypes, smoking status, immunotherapy responses, and survival measures.
“These findings validate the view that the microbiome in its entirety is a key piece of cancer biology and may present significant translational opportunities, not only in cancer detection, but also in other biotech applications related to drug development, cancer evolution, minimal residual disease, relapse, and companion diagnostics,” said Gregory Sepich-Poore, MD, PhD, one of the study’s authors and co-founder and chief analytics officer at biotechnology company Micronoma, in the UCSD press release.
New Clinical Laboratory Tests to Identify Fungal Species in Cancer
They found that “several Candida species were enriched in tumor samples and tumor-associated Candida DNA was predictive of decreased survival,” according to their paper.
Their analysis of multiple body sites revealed tumor-associated mycobiomes in fungal cells. The researchers found that fungal spores known as blastomyces were associated with tumor tissues in lung cancers, and that high rates of Candida were present in stomach and colon cancers.
The Duke/Cornell researchers hope their work can provide a framework to develop new tests that can distinguish fungal species in tumors and predict cancer progression and help medical professionals and patients chose the best treatment therapies.
“These findings open up a lot of exciting research directions, from the development of diagnostics and treatments to studies of the detailed biological mechanisms of fungal relationships to cancers,” said Iliyan Iliev, PhD, Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology in Medicine, Weill Cornell Medicine, and one of the authors of the study, in a Weill news release.
More research is needed to determine if fungal DNA plays a role in disease pathology or if its presence does not have any causal link.
“It’s plausible that some of these fungi are promoting tumor progression and metastasis, but even if they aren’t, they could be very valuable as prognostic indicators,” Iliev said.
The insights gleaned from these two studies will be of particular interest to microbiologists, clinical laboratory professionals, and anatomic pathologists. Additional research could answer questions about how and if fungi infect tumors and if such fungi is a factor that increases cancer risk and outcomes.
Researchers surprised that process designed to detect SARS-CoV-2 also identifies monkeypox in wastewater
Early information about an outbreak in a geographical region can inform local clinical laboratories as to which infectious agents and variants they are likely to see when testing patients who have symptoms. To that end, wastewater testing has become a rich source of early clues as to where COVID-19 outbreaks are spreading and how new variants of the coronavirus are emerging.
Ongoing advances in genetic sequencing and digital technologies are making it feasible to test wastewater for infectious agents in ways that were once too time-consuming, too expensive, or simply impossible.
“Before wastewater sequencing, the only way to do this was through clinical testing, which is not feasible at large scale, especially in areas with limited resources, public participation, or the capacity to do sufficient testing and sequencing,” said Knight in a UCSD press release. “We’ve shown that wastewater sequencing can successfully track regional infection dynamics with fewer limitations and biases than clinical testing to the benefit of almost any community.” (Photo copyright: UC San Diego News.)
Same Process, Different Virus
Following August’s declaration of a state of emergency by California, San Diego County, and the federal government, UCSD researchers added monkeypox surveillance to UCSD’s existing wastewater surveillance program.
“It’s the same process as SARS-CoV-2 qPCR monitoring, except that we have been testing for a different virus. Monkeypox is a DNA virus, so it is a bit of a surprise that our process optimized for SARS-CoV-2, which is an RNA virus, works so well,” said Rob Knight, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics and Computer Science and Engineering at UCSD and one of the lead authors of the study in the press release.
According to the press release, RNA sequencing from wastewater has two specific benefits:
It avoids the potential of clinical testing biases, and
It can track changes in the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 variants over time.
In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists from the University of California San Diego and Scripps Research looked into genetic sequencing of wastewater. They wanted to see if it would provide insights into levels and variants of the SARS-CoV-2 within a specific community.
Individuals who have COVID-19 shed the virus in their stool.
The UCSD/Scripps researchers deployed commercial auto-sampling robots to collect wastewater samples at the main UCSD campus. They analyzed the samples for levels of SARS-CoV-2 RNA at the Expedited COVID-19 Identification Environment (EXCITE) lab at UCSD. After the success of the program on the campus, they extended their research to include other facilities and communities in the San Diego area.
Detecting Pathogens Weeks Earlier than Traditional Clinical Laboratory Testing
In July, the scientists successfully determined the genetic mixture of SARS-CoV-2 variants present in wastewater samples by examining just two teaspoons of raw sewage. They found they could accurately identify new variants 14 days before traditional clinical laboratory testing. They detected the presence of the Omicron variant 11 days before it was first reported clinically in the community.
During the study, the team collected and analyzed 21,383 sewage samples, with most of those samples (19,944) being taken from the UCSD campus. They performed genomic sequencing on 600 of the samples and compared them to genomes obtained from clinical swabs. They also compared 31,149 genomes from clinical genomic surveillance to 837 wastewater samples taken from the community.
The scientists distinguished specific viral lineages present in the samples by sequencing the viruses’ complete set of genetic instructions. Mutational differences between the various SARS-CoV-2 variants can be minute and subtle, but also have notable biological deviations.
“Nothing like this had been done before. Sampling and detection efforts began modestly but grew steadily with increased research capacity and experience. Currently, we’re monitoring almost 350 buildings on campus,” said UCSD’s Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, PhD, in the July press release.
“The wastewater program was an essential element of UC San Diego Health’s response to the COVID pandemic,” said Robert Schooley, MD, Infectious Disease Specialist at UC San Diego Health, in the press release. Schooley is also a professor at UCSD School of Medicine, and one of the authors of the study.
“It provided us with real-time intelligence about locations on campus where virus activity was ongoing,” he added. “Wastewater sampling essentially allowed us to ‘swab the noses’ of every person upstream from the collector every day and to use that information to concentrate viral detection efforts at the individual level.”
Monkeypox Added to UCSD Wastewater Surveillance
In August, UCSD officially added the surveillance of the monkeypox virus to their ongoing wastewater surveillance program. A month earlier, the researchers had discerned 10,565.54 viral copies per liter of wastewater. They observed the levels fluctuating and increasing.
On August 2, the scientists detected 189,309.81 viral copies per liter of wastewater. However, it is not yet clear if the monitoring of monkeypox viral loads in wastewater will enable the researchers to accurately predict future infections or case rates.
“We don’t yet know if the data will anticipate case surges like with COVID,” Knight said in the August UCSD press release announcing the addition of monkeypox to the surveillance program. “It depends on when the virus is shed from the body relative to how bad the symptoms are that cause people to seek care. This is, in principle, different for each virus, although in practice wastewater seems to be predictive for multiple viruses.”
Utilization of genetic sequencing of wastewater sampling will continue to develop and improve. “It’s fairly easy to add new pathogens to the process,” said Smruthi Karthikeyan, PhD, an environmental engineer and postdoctoral researcher in Knight’s lab who has overseen wastewater monitoring at UC San Diego. “It’s doable on short notice. We can get more information in the same turnaround time.”
Thus, clinical laboratories engaged in testing programs for COVID-19 may soon see the addition of monkeypox to those processes.