Cancer cells harbor so many mysteries that cancer is often
described as a complex of distinct diseases. Now, leading research
institutions in nine countries, including Dana-Farber, have joined
forces to probe that complexity by uncovering the genetic changes
that make cancer cells dangerous and elusive.
The International Cancer Genome Consortium – a collaboration
aimed at cataloging every genetic mutation in 50 different cancer
types by analyzing a minimum of 500 individual samples of each type – is a growing coalition of scientists from Australia, Canada,
France, India, China, Japan, Singapore, United Kingdom, and the
United States. Membership is open to any group that commits $20
million for each cancer type it proposes to study.
Earlier this year, Lynda Chin, MD, and Ronald DePinho, MD, of
Dana-Farber's Center for Applied Cancer Science (CACS), helped
create the scientific policies and guidelines for this massive
project whose administration will be coordinated by the Ontario
Institute for Cancer Research in Toronto, Canada.
The consortium will benefit from the expertise of Dana-Farber
researchers, although the Institute's participation is yet to be
finalized, Chin says.
"Since Dana-Farber plays such prominent intellectual and
technological roles in cancer science internationally, there's no
question that its investigators will be involved in the project at
many levels," DePinho adds.
Heralded to be the largest coordinated effort to unearth the
roots of cancer, the consortium aims to fully describe the genetic
changes not only in cancerous DNA, but the RNA messages transcribed
from the DNA of specific types of cancer cells, as well as chemical
changes to DNA that cause certain cancer cells to jam down the
accelerators of growth.
DePinho estimates that cancer researchers have identified only
10 percent of the genetic alterations in human cancer. The
consortium, he suggests, would equip researchers with an atlas that
pinpoints the plethora of mutations plaguing the cancer genome.
This information would help researchers better characterize and
categorize those cancer types and likely help uncover a trove of
potential drug targets. The consortium also hopes to generate
genetic data for guiding bespoke cancer treatment – therapy
tailored to individual patients' likelihood of responding to
existing cancer drugs.
DePinho says this data might provide insights into the
biomarkers needed to guide the selection of cancer patients for
specific clinical trials.
Scientists in the consortium wish to make the data freely
available to researchers everywhere through a database expected to
be launched in the fall; results from the research groups are
expected to pour in about 18 months thereafter.
Chin says the consortium will be funded by the governments of
participating countries as well as potential private sources.
Last year, the National Cancer Institute and the National Genome
Research Institute spearheaded a related national effort, called
the Cancer Genome Atlas program, in which Dana-Farber scientists
play a pivotal role.
"A lot of the guidelines and goals of the consortium have been
modeled on the Cancer Genome Atlas program," Chin says. "The
consortium will do what the atlas program is doing, except that the
technology will be a generation more advanced. The consortium will
also serve as an international body that defines the standards for
quality control." The Cancer Genome Atlas program will contribute
to the consortium while remaining an independent, national
DePinho predicts that the atlas program might become a prominent
component of the U.S. arm of the consortium. "The cancer community
has to brace itself to handle the tsunami of data that's going to
hit it," he says.
– Prashant Nairprashant_nair@dfci.harvard.edu
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