Researchers map the cancer genome

Several studies published this week suggest that new ways of approaching the treatment of cancer is on the horizon. Scientists are attempting to use gene sequencing machines to identify the mutations that cause cancer, which they hope will allow for differentiated treatment to patients based on the genetic profile of their tumor. In addition, gene sequencing could also lead to developments in the way doctors test for cancer. A catalog of mutations for different tumors could allow doctors to test patients for the presence of DNA or dislodged cells from tumors much earlier.

The studies bring to light a number of barriers to identifying successful targeted treatments. They have found that the number of key genes that frequently mutate is much larger--and that the machinery of cancerous tumors is much more complicated--than expected.

Researchers working on the cancer-genome project at Johns Hopkins University published two separate papers in Science on pancreatic and brain cancer. A third study on brain cancer--funded by the NIH and published in Nature--is part of a $100 million, three-year pilot project called the Cancer Genome Atlas Research Network. They are currently attempting to map ovarian, lung and brain cancer, but if all goes well, the project may be expanded to include up to 50 common human cancers.

Last year, the Atlas project drew criticism from a number of prominent scientists who argued that it is a waste of money to catalog the mutations of primary tumors as they are not the chief threat. According to those researchers, the more serious threat are the malignant cells that cause the rapid spread of cancer throughout the body.

- check out the WSJ article

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