Cancer genomics seem poised to expand – perhaps dramatically – clinical oncology’s supply of targeted antitumor agents.

“High-throughput tools for nucleic acid characterization now provide the means to conduct comprehensive analyses of all somatic alterations in the cancer genomes,” notes Lynda Chin, MD, of the Department of Medical Oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and coauthors.1

At the forefront of that effort is the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Cancer Institute (NCI), and National Human Genome Institute’s (NHGI) multimillion-dollar Cancer Genome Atlas Project, which aims to rapidly expand our understanding of the molecular basis of cancer and to identify new targets for therapy.

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Initiated by the NIH in 2005, budget constraints initially limited the Atlas to a pilot project involving glioblastoma multiforme and ovarian cystadenocarcinoma genomes. But a few short years later, the project is working on documenting the genomes of 20 to 25 types of cancer from nine organ systems.

According to the project’s website, the NCI and NHGI have committed more than $100 million to the project, in addition to more than $150 million in federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (“stimulus”) funds devoted to the project since 2009.

Today, the Cancer Genome Research Network involves 15 research institutions and more than 150 scientists.

They have their work cut out for them.

The project is far more complex than the original Human Genome Project. Cancer, once thought to be rooted in a straightforward manner to a few key gene mutations, has proven to be a much more complex foe than that. According to Dr. Chin, cancer “is the consequence of accumulated somatic genomic and epigenomic alterations within the tumor cells, influenced by their heterotypic interactions with a tumor microenvironment.”1  To attempt to capture all that information, the Cancer Genome Atlas Network’s researchers are now employing DNA- and RNA-sequencing techniques, gene copy number-alteration analyses, chromosomal rearrangement analyses, gene expression arrays, and epigenetic portraits of DNA methylation patterns.