If all the ways genes that go the wrong way to cause cancer were to form a a dictionary, scientists can decipher only part of the first page.
The U.S. government has set out to begin a $100 million US pilot project to unravel the genetic makeup of cancer, with the idea of speeding the discovery of gene culprits and treatments that are today more a matter of luck.
Dr. Francis Collins, the National Institutes of Health's genetics chief who announced the Cancer Genome project, said it is an audacious project. It's far more complex than research that mapped the human genome, a molecular blueprint for our species. However, today the technology does exist to finally track down the genetic changes required to spark any of the 200 diseases we collectively call cancer. This knowledge would be crucial to develop better treatments.
The time has come. The advances of technology have thrown up opportunities to look at the global nature of what is wrong with the cancer cell in a way undreamt of a few years ago.
People were once skeptical whether we could determine the genome of just one individual. "To map all the genes involved in cancer, we're talking about basically thousands of Human Genome Projects," Collins said.
Scientists have discovered numerous genes that play a vital role in cancer. At times a single genetic mutation is enough to spark a tumor; or it just makes people more vulnerable to the disease. Other changes could determine the difference between a fast-growing killer or a less dangerous tumor, or decide whether a particular line of treatment is likely to work.
But developing cancer usually involves about a dozen critical genetic alterations -- a domino effect -- that differ by malignancy, and scientists have uncovered only a fraction of them, an NIH working group reported earlier this year.
What makes cancer so hard in terms of really conquering the disease is its complexity. There are myriad genetic changes that drive the processes that are cancer, and every one of those can be a little different from one human to another.
A handful of so-called targeted drugs -- Herceptin, Gleevec, Iressa, Tarceva -- are proving remarkably effective at battling certain cancers in patients with specific faulty genes.
Under the Cancer Genome Project, researchers who now work independently will be able to share data in hopes of speeding such discoveries -- not just of specific gene mutations, but of chromosome rearrangements, faulty on/off switches and other abnormalities.