Some 500 million pounds have been allotted to an international project to map out genetic mutations that are responsible for causing 50 types of common cancers. If successful the cancer genome project has the potential to revolutionize treatment and diagnosis of cancer.
The International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC), which was announced on April 30, will run a cancer equivalent of the Human Genome Project to identify every way in which DNA goes wrong to cause common types of tumour.
The ambitious initiative is hoped to be completed within ten years.
The project's insights will open a new era in personalized cancer medicine, allowing doctors to pinpoint the precise genetic factors that are responsible for the growth and spread of their patients' tumors.
This will make it easier to select therapies that are most likely to work for individuals with particular kinds of cancer.
Professor Mike Stratton, of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, near Cambridge, which will conduct up to a third of the sequencing, said: "In the past we have had piecemeal 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 new project will take advantage of new DNA sequencing technology to map all the genetic changes that occur in 3 to 5 per cent of up to 50 different cancers.
For each of these, scientists will take cells from 500 patients, sequence their genomes, and compare the results with the genetic code of healthy cells. It will then be possible to identify which of the mutations that are revealed actually contribute to the onset and spread of cancer, and which are incidental.
The results of a pilot project, which looked at lung cancer, have been published this week in the journal Nature Genetics.
Each of the 50 cancers will be handled by a separate project, each with a budget of 10 million pounds. Nine countries are already involved.
"This new global collaboration is essential to enable a comprehensive approach to cataloguing the mutations that cause cancers in different environments around the world," Times Online quoted Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, as saying.