The team led by Isaac S Kohane performed a comprehensive comparison of genes expressed in early developmental stages of various human tissues and those expressed in different cancers affecting these tissues.
"Our study reveals potentially clinically relevant differences in the gene expression of different cancer types and represents a reference framework for interpretation of smaller-scale functional studies," he said.
One of the three described groups of cancers has an early developmental phenotype and expresses genes that are characteristic of stem cells.
A second, more heterogeneous group tends to be more similar to late development and is characterized by an inflammatory signature.
The third is a small group of cancers that present as a transition phenotype between these two extremes and displays both characteristics.
"This segregation of tumors into three groups with distinct expression patterns is surprising. Clearly, the developmental trajectory provides a meaningful background for capturing large-scale differences in gene expression across diverse conditions," said Kohane.
The research is published in BioMed Central's open access journal Genome Biology.