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  • July 23, 2008
    International consortium to catalog cancer's secrets

    lynda-chin.jpgLynda Chin has helped develop the policies of the consortium. 

    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.

    Unearthing cancer's roots

    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.

    ronald-depinho.jpgRonald DePinho 

    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 endeavor.

    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 Nair 

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