Cancer Genome Map
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By Joel B. Finkelstein

Cancer Genome Map

A new project aims to catalog cancer-related genetic mutations

By Joel B. Finkelstein


Officials from the National Institutes of Health have announced a pilot study to test the cost effectiveness and feasibility of ambitious plans to catalog and analyze the spectrum of genetic mutations that cause out-of-control cell growth. Called the Cancer Genome Atlas, the project may help scientists develop new ways to detect and treat cancer.

Researchers have been able to identify several inherited genetic anomalies that increase a person's risk of developing cancer, and many more cancers are caused by so-called acquired mutations—changes in a person's DNA that happen over a lifetime.

The Cancer Genome Atlas will try to map these cancer-causing mutations by sifting through tumor samples in search of common genetic patterns that deviate from normal, National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) Director Francis Collins said at a December press conference.

The new project's abbreviated name—TCGA—is no accident, he said. The four letters represent the chemicals thymine, cytosine, guanine and adenine in the DNA code.

Collins was at the forefront of an international effort to decode the normal human genome, a project that was completed in April 2003. The atlas project is the first large-scale effort to leverage that information, National Cancer Institute Deputy Director Anna Barker told the audience. The atlas is a collaboration of the NCI and the NHGRI, each of which is devoting $50 million to the three-year pilot project.

"I think this is a turning point in biomedical research and I think it could be a turning point in medicine," Barker said at the press conference. "I am sure that it's going to be a turning point for cancer research."

The project could yield important new strategies for both detecting and treating cancer, she said.

Clinicians are eagerly looking forward to that day, says Richard Pestell, the director of the Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. While techniques for assessing the genetics of cancer have progressed rapidly, there has been little consensus on how to apply them, he says. The atlas project should help bring some standardization to procedures for storing and analyzing tumor cells.

However, some scientists have criticized the project, suggesting that its long-term funding—estimated at $1.5 billion over 10 years—would be better spent by individual researchers. And while the atlas could speed the pace of research, other scientists say that any major payoff is likely a decade away.

"The scope and vision of TCGA are broadly appropriate but the project may take many years to complete," says Robert Clarke, a professor of oncology and a professor of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. "It is still early yet to assess how well it will work."  CR endbox