Cancer genomics is a relatively new area of scientific study that lies at the heart of personalized medicine, an ever-expanding field of medical care aimed not merely at treating the external symptoms, but also at tackling disease on a tailor-made, cellular level. Here, we take a look at cancer genomics, including how it began, how people use it today, and how experts hope this innovation could pave the way for eradicating cancer completely.
What is cancer genomics?
Your genome is your complete set of DNA, which is present in every cell of your body. This DNA is divided into two groups of chromosomes—one from each of your parents. Each chromosome is composed of 6 billion DNA letters, which are grouped together in certain arrangements to form a genetic blue print that dictates your physical characteristics, such as height and eye color.
Genomics is the study of the order, or sequence, of these DNA letters. Sometimes chromosomes contain a fault that can cause cells to generate proteins that prevent individual cells from working as they should. This can make cells grow very quickly and damage neighboring cells, resulting in a tumor.
Scientists study the cancer genome to gain a greater insight into the sequencing fault that causes cancer. Understanding the cancer genome is arguably the greatest breakthrough in 21st-century oncology, allowing experts to not only diagnose and treat patients, but, in some cases, to stop cancers from developing in the first place. In cases when individuals have a family history of certain cancers, genome mapping helps medical practitioners assess the risk of them developing those cancers in their lifetime and, in some cases, recommend precautionary steps they can take to reduce or eliminate their risk.
How did cancer genomics start?
The National Cancer Institute created the Cancer Genome Anatomy Project in 1997 with the aim of studying and documenting RNA sequences in tumor cells. In 2003, the organization released the largest collection of cancer expressed sequence tags ever made available to the public.
In 2005, the Sanger Institute founded the Cancer Genome Project, focusing primarily on DNA sequencing. The group published a registry of cancer-linked genes, as well as a selection of genome sequencing screens to detect genes implicated in cancer.
A team of scientists founded the International Cancer Genome Consortium in 2007, with the aim of creating a central registry of genomic, epigenetic and transcriptomic data gathered from numerous research groups around the world. By the end of 2011, organization had amassed data from 2,961 cancer genomes.
How is cancer genomics helping people with cancer today?
Personalized cancer therapy involves using cellular-level diagnostics to customize the treatment to the individual. This groundbreaking innovation is slowly becoming available to the general public, though it is subject to stringent controls, regulation, and testing. Thus far, personalized cancer therapy has been used with success in the treatment of lung and skin cancer, and scientists believe that next-generation sequencing techniques will facilitate the taxonomy of tumors and the identification of biomarkers to predict responses to individualized therapy. Numerous genomic studies are currently being conducted by experts worldwide on a variety of different cancer types, including the following:
- Breast cancer
- Lung cancer
- Bone cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
What are the limitations of cancer genomics?
Cancer is notoriously inconsistent and unpredictable—from patient to patient, tumor to tumor, and even on a cellular level within the same tumor. Moreover, genomic data is extremely complex. With each genome comprising billions of chromosomes, dredging data and making comparisons in the hope of finding correlations and markers is like looking for a needle in a haystack. With such a huge volume of data, the possibility for confusion and error is vast. Since the inception of the Human Genome Project, scientists have recognized the need for a central database in order to process this huge volume of data. Nevertheless, with data of such critical importance being entered by numerous contributors worldwide, ensuring the veracity and accuracy of that data as well as careful curation of the database as a whole is a monumentally difficult task.
What role will cancer genomics play in finding a cure for cancer?
Scientists expect the Cancer Genome Atlas to play an integral role in the future of cancer research. This decade-long initiative has already amassed a huge archive, documenting information on over 11,000 tumors and 33 cancer types in 27 white papers cataloging the initiative’s findings. It has collected over 2.5 petabytes of data: the equivalent of 530,000 DVDs.
The Cancer Genome Atlas is an international collaboration with three primary goals:
- To gain better insight on cancer on a cellular level
- To derive original cellular taxonomies
- To identify potential cellular therapeutic targets
In this way, experts hope the Cancer Genome Atlas will reveal markers and correlations pinpointing the various cancer types. This will enable experts to develop and deliver tailor-made medicine at a cellular level, in the hope of finally achieving an effective cure for cancer.