Cracking Cancer’s Genetic Code

More encouraging news was released today in the public health campaign against cancer, the second deadliest disease in America after heart disease. According to a report in the most recent issue of the journal Science, researchers from Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), Johns Hopkins University, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and a team of researchers from The Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins have identified 189 genetic mutations that play a major role in the development of breast cancer and colorectal cancer. reports that

“Only by understanding this blueprint of cancer will we be fully able to understand the mechanism of what makes a cancer a cancer and to think about strategies for diagnosis, prevention and therapy,” said Dr. Victor Velculescu, senior researcher on the project and an assistant professor of oncology at [the] Kimmel Cancer Center.

The [research] team found far more mutated genes in tumor cells than they had expected. They found 189 genetic mutations in the tumors, which are suspected to be involved in causing cancer. The main point was that these genes were never implicated in cancer previously.

“Scientists who have seen these data have told us that it keeps them up all night thinking,” said Bert Vogelstein, a co-researcher in the study. “It will hopefully open up a large number of opportunities in many areas of cancer research.”

The researchers had theorized that they would find a maximum of 90 mutations that alter protein structure. Through crosschecking, the researchers identified an average of 11 genes in each cancer that were most likely involved in how the cancer presented itself. Approximating this to the human genome, the researchers say an average of about 17 genes are expected to have critical involvement in the development of each cancer.

The researchers found another startling fact. No two cancers were similar even if the genes were the same, meaning that different genes presented in different ways for the same type of cancer in different individuals. The genes contributing to breast cancer were different from those mutated in colorectal cancers.

This is just the beginning of a federally financed effort, called the Cancer Genome Atlas, to map the genetic mututations that cause the various forms of cancer. It is hoped that the effort will lead to the development of new drug treatments for this terrible disease.