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Cancer Atlas: Humongous Science under Fire … Again

Prominent cancer experts are calling the NIH’s $1.5 billion project to map all mutations in cancer tumors a waste of time and money; not so, say proponents.

I’m getting that déjà-vu feeling way down in my deoxyribonucleic acid. 

In the late 1980s, when James “Double Helix” Watson and others were pushing something called the Human Genome Project (HGP), many geneticists thought the idea of spending billions to map every nook and cranny of the human genome was a colossal waste of time and money. The HGP’s $3 billion price tag was the biggest in the history of biology projects, and scientists fretted that it would suck up cash from other projects. (It didn’t: it was funded in addition to NIH budgets.) Scientists also insisted that merely amassing the location of billions of nucleotides would be like having the addresses of every person on Earth, with no other information about them.

The same charges are being leveled at the NIH’s latest giant science project, called the Cancer Genome Atlas, which seeks to map every mutation in the tumors of the 50 most common cancers, reports Sharon Begley in the next issue of Newsweek. Genes in cancerous cells mutate far faster than they do in healthy cells, and understanding and characterizing these mutations will lead to designer drugs to treat them–at least that’s the plan.

Critics are now saying that the project will characterize a vast number of mutations that do not impact the most dangerous mutations in a tumor–the rare cells (1 in 50,000, according to one expert) that give rise to metastatic cells that spread to other parts of the body, including the brain. Some experts even fear that the Atlas will miss these cells altogether. Another problem is that tumors seem to adapt to targeted drugs sent in to shut down specific mutations by forming new mutations.

Proponents of the Atlas point out that even in its pilot phase, the project has identified 191 mutations in several genes inside colon- and breast-cancer tumors. However, some of these mutations appear to be more important than others.

If the HGP is any guide, then both supporters and critics are probably right. It did produce a gargantuan heap of data that will most likely take decades to sort through (that is, to find all those “people” at all those addresses and ascertain what they do and who they are). Also, the promise and hype surrounding the project arguably created an expectation bubble that targeted treatments and cures would emerge far faster than they have. The slow pace has disappointed patients, scientists, and biotech investors.

On the other hand, the project has generated a revolution in basic research and a gathering understanding of human genetics that could not have happened otherwise. Major findings include the fact that the number of actual genes in humans is far less than was originally thought, leading to major revisions in theories about how genes and proteins work inside our bodies.

The Cancer Genome Atlas is likely to offer the same pluses and minuses, though its cost–at a time when budgets at the NIH are either level or declining–should perhaps give us pause. Also, we need to ponder what will happen if another gigantic project creates an unrealistic expectation bubble that cures and treatments will be around the corner, even if scientists do get a bonanza of new data to tease out in their labs. The public seems to have a large appetite for humongous science projects, but there may be a limit if this one fails to deliver fast enough.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) site describes the Cancer Genome Atlas.

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