Scientists drive cancer genome decoding initiative

A pioneering plan unveiled by the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC) will give scientists the ammunition they need to fight human cancer. The genomes from 25,000 cancer samples will be decoded and a data resource will be established with access provided to all cancer researchers. Writing in the journal Nature, the researchers of this strategy also highlight the importance of how projects in the EU and abroad are making significant contributions to cancer-fighting efforts. The ICGC members are presenting the progress of their projects at the annual conference of the American Association for Cancer Research in Washington DC on 17 to 21 April 2010.

Established in 2008, the ICGC is made up of more than 200 members who aim to provide personalised medicine for people suffering from cancer. 'Given the tremendous potential for relatively low-cost genomic sequencing to reveal clinically useful information, we anticipate that in the not so distant future, partial or full cancer genomes will routinely be sequenced as part of the clinical evaluation of cancer patients,' the authors write in the paper.

The ICGC members note that the various projects funded by the EU and international bodies will investigate over 10,000 tumours for cancer types affecting various organs in the body, including the brain, breast, pancreas and ovaries.

Specifically, the EU has granted a total of EUR 21 million to 2 cancer research projects: BASIS ('Breast cancer somatic genetics study') and CAGEKID ('Cancer genomics of the kidney'). The Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) projects will generate complete catalogues of somatic mutations in 500 breast cancers, and to provide the first systematic analysis of kidney cancer, the incidence of which has increased greatly in the past 20 years. The projects involve 27 research institutes from 10 countries in Europe and the US.

"This is the latest step in the EU's effort to tackle cancer under the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and a perfect example of the potential of EU research policy to save and improve lives," said EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science M√°ire Geoghegan-Quinn in a statement.

"Generating comprehensive catalogues of human cancer mutations will require a tremendous amount of work and collaboration over the coming years," explained Professor Mike Stratton, the joint leader of the British Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute's Cancer Genome Project, which will decode hundreds of breast cancer genomes as part of the ICGC's efforts. "By sharing ideas, resources and data across scientific and clinical disciplines, we will be able to translate advances in knowledge into real benefits for future generations of patients."

Commenting on the work being carried out by the ICGC, cancer scientist and 2001 Nobel Laureate for Physiology or Medicine Sir Paul Nurse said: "The ICGC initiative will profoundly alter our understanding of the development of human cancer, across the spectrum of tumour types. The worldwide coordinated nature of the project and the plans for data release will facilitate efficient deployment of resources and ensure that all cancer researchers can use the information generated in a timely manner."

For his part, ICGC member Professor Eric S. Lander of the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US noted the data will give researchers the tools they need to determine how to better prevent, detect, diagnose and treat this class of diseases that is responsible for the deaths of so many people each year.

Cancer killed more than 7.5 million people worldwide in 2007, and over 12 million new cases were diagnosed that same year, data from the American Cancer Society show. Experts predict those numbers will skyrocket to 17.5 million deaths and 27 million new cases by 2050 if there is no progress in how to understand and control cancer. Researchers used to believe that cancer was a single disease, but now realise that it is the result of genetic mutations in cells that disrupt normal functions and trigger uncontrollable growth.

"The ability to identify the genetic changes in cancer is leading to new ways to devise therapies directed at the underlying cellular mechanisms of cancer and to target the right therapies to the right patients," Professor Lander explained. "We are moving into an era where the prescription for cancer treatment should be based on the genetics of each patient's tumour."

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