A massive new study that centred around the sequencing of genomes of dozens of cancers has revealed new information on how tumours form. The international research that brought together over 1300 experts has painstakingly sequenced 38 types of cancer in nearly 2,800 patients. Their finding might pave the way for better cancer treatment and early intervention.
Their work produced a host of new discoveries – from the number and location of so-called driver mutations that push cells to reproduce uncontrollably, to the surprising similarities between cancers found in different types of tissue.
The results of the collaborative research were published on Thursday as multiple papers in Nature. The results represent the largest and most comprehensive study of whole cancer genomes ever to have done.
“With the knowledge we have gained about the origins and evolution of tumours, we can develop new tools and therapies to detect cancer earlier, develop more targeted therapies and treat patients more successfully,” said Lincoln Stein, a member of the project steering committee, in a statement issued by the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.
Key findings of the research include the identification of massive variety in cancer genomes, difference in cancer genomes from person to person and most importantly 80 specific processes that trigger them mutation in the first place. The researchers say that some of these mutations are age-related while others are inherited or linked to lifestyle.
In some cases, the work has found that the early development of certain cancers can occur decades before diagnosis. “This shows that the window of opportunity for early intervention is much wider than we expected,” says Peter Campbell of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, a steering committee member of the project,
The research also was able to identify patterns of mutations, and where they might occur. These can help identify cancers that cannot be identified through regular diagnostics. The researchers believe a sequenced genome can even reveal occasional misdiagnosis of a cancer type.
Interestingly in around five percent of the cases, no known driver mutations were found by the team. It means there are more mutations that are yet to be identified. While the research as a whole revealed how diverse the genomes could be, it also revealed that cancers in different parts of the body are sometimes much more alike than had been originally thought.
The researchers behind the project hope that the findings will help identify difficult-to-diagnose cancers, allowing room for more targeted treatment based on the specific driver mutations behind a particular cancer, and potentially provide early diagnosis of developing tumours.