International Cancer Genome Consortium sets sights on cancer

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The International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC), which includes the Wellcome Trust and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the UK, will generate a valuable resource enabling the development of new and better ways of diagnosing, treating and preventing cancer.

The ICGC will build on the success of the UK’s Cancer Genome Project at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, led by Professor Mike Stratton. Amongst the key findings of the Cancer Genome Project was the discovery that the BRAF gene is commonly mutated in malignant melanoma and some other tumours.

“Our research is uncovering a dramatic view in which the human genome in cancer cells is ravaged by changes,” says Professor Stratton, co-Head of the Cancer Genome Project at Sanger. “Some of these alterations cause the disease while others are just tagging along for the ride.

“In the past we have had piecemeal or low magnification views of the cancer genome. With the advent of new faster DNA sequencing technologies the ICGC now has set the hugely ambitious aim of fully sequencing thousands of cancer genomes to catalogue all the changes in DNA and obtain a complete picture of the abnormalities that lead to cancer with the aim of improving diagnosis and treatment.”

The ICGC will identify a list of approximately 50 cancer types and subtypes that are of clinical significance around the globe, aiming to study cancers of all major organs, including breast, ovary, prostate, lung and blood cancers. ICGC members will assume responsibility for specific cancers, and one of the consortium’s roles will be to facilitate the exchange of information so participants’ efforts do not duplicate each other. All the data generated will be made rapidly and freely available to the global research community.

The international collaboration has been welcomed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who recently called for a further strengthening in international cooperation in health research.

“International cooperation in health research is essential to maximise the opportunities that we have to find the cures and treatments for some of the most serious diseases which we face,” says Mr Brown. “I am pleased to support the International Cancer Genome Consortium as it builds on the success of the UK’s own Cancer Genome Project.

“Britain is a world leader in medical research and its participation in international projects such as this one is central to our aspirations to be at the forefront of the global fight against disease.”

In 2007, more than 7.5 million people died of cancer worldwide and more than 12 million new cases of cancer were diagnosed; these numbers are expected to rise to 17.5 million deaths and 27 million new cases by 2050.

Once thought of as a single disease, cancer is now understood to consist of a large number of different conditions. In almost all forms, however, cancer changes the genetic blueprint, or genomes, of cells and causes disruptions within normal biological pathways, leading to uncontrolled cell growth. Because genomic changes are often specific to a particular type or stage of cancer, systematically discovering the changes that occur in each cancer has the potential to provide the foundation for research to identify new therapies, diagnostics and preventive strategies.

“Identifying the mutations that cause cancer is a big step towards developing targeted therapies,” says Dr Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust. “For example, the work of Professor Stratton and colleagues on malignant melanomas has stimulated a new drug discovery programme. This new global collaboration is essential to enable a comprehensive approach to cataloguing the mutations that cause cancers in different environments around the world.”

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute announced on Sunday results from the first ever genome-wide study of cancer samples using new technology sequencing of the type that will be the backbone of the ICGC. The research, published in Nature Genetics, shows that in some cancers the human genome has been rearranged to a remarkable extent with hundreds of fractures being reset wrongly, resulting in an extraordinary reshuffling of DNA. This ground-breaking research will set the stage for the ICGC.

The ICGC, which is extending an invitation to all nations to participate, currently includes:

Australia: National Health and Medical Research Council (Observer Status)
Canada: Genome Canada; Ontario Institute for Cancer Research
China: Chinese Cancer Genome Consortium
France: Institut National du Cancer
Europe: European Commission (Observer Status)
India: Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology
Japan: RIKEN; National Cancer Center
Singapore: Genome Institute of Singapore
United Kingdom: The Wellcome Trust; Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
United States: National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Each ICGC member will conduct a comprehensive, high-resolution analysis of the full range of genomic changes in at least one specific type or subtype of cancer, with studies built around common standards of data collection and analysis. Each project will require cancer specimens from 500 patients and have an estimated cost of US$20 million.

Source: Wellcome Trust, UK

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