What causes a healthy cell to turn cancerous or a sedentary tumor cell to venture into the blood stream and invade a distant organ? Researchers hope to answer these critical questions in a pilot project meant to catalogue the myriad gene changes that can lead to cancer.
The project, funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute, two divisions of the National Institutes of Health, will focus on three types of cancerous tumors still to be determined. It is actually a test run for a much larger – and more controversial – cancer genome project aimed at identifying all the genetic abnormalities that underlie cancer.
An original $1.35 billion plan, proposed last February by the Broad Institute’s Eric Lander, aimed to sequence DNA from thousands of tumors in the 50 most common types of cancer. That proposal brought criticism from some cancer researchers, however, who questioned whether such a Herculean project would be a wise use of funds.
Results from the pilot project will be used to shape a more comprehensive analysis, called the Cancer Genome Atlas.
Of the new pilot project, Francis Collins, director of National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), says, “We want to see that this has promise in changing the clinical approach to cancer…We expect discoveries that will identify new drug targets and stratify cancers into different subtypes with different diagnostics and therapeutics.”
The genetic mutations that characterize cancer vary, both between cancer types and within a single tumor. For example, a series of genetic missteps might lead to the formation of a primary tumor, while another series of abnormalities within a single cell in that tumor could allow the cancer to spread to other organs. Further, the same type of tumor in another person might follow a different genetic path. So a complete cancer genome “atlas” will require the sequencing of thousands of tumors to identify all the mutations that can turn a cell cancerous.