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Projects launched to crack the cancer code

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by Cancer Research UK | News

13 July 2011

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CANCER RESEARCH UK today launched two pioneering projects to identify the key genetic faults that are driving oesophageal and prostate cancers, which will transform our understanding of the diseases and pave the way to better and more targeted treatments.

Part of the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC)1, the projects will scan all the genes in 500 oesophageal and 500 prostate cancers, looking for each genetic mistake. Armed with this ‘blueprint for cancer’ the researchers will be able to pick out and target the genes that are causing cancer with new treatments.

The projects will be supported by two new fundraising initiatives. The prostate cancer arm will be supported by the fundraising efforts of the Dallaglio Foundation which is raising £2.5 million for the project, while the oesophageal ICGC project is one of the initiatives being supported by Cancer Research UK’s new Catalyst Club, which is raising £4.5m.

Over 17,000 people die each year from the two diseases in the UK, but very little is known about how they develop and why patients respond differently to treatment.

In the UK, The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust will lead the prostate cancer ICGC project, while the University of Cambridge will lead the oesophageal cancer ICGC project.

Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald, who will lead the Cancer Research UK oesophageal cancer ICGC project in Cambridge, said: “The number of people diagnosed with oesophageal cancer is increasing rapidly in the UK, and only eight per cent of patients will survive at least five years. We urgently need to know more about the underlying causes of the disease and what determines whether a patient will respond to a treatment.”

At its core cancer is a disease caused by damaged DNA, and over time these faults make cells grow out of control and cause cancer. But it’s these same faults that researchers can use to learn about its weaknesses to find those that can be exploited with new treatments.

Dr Fitzgerald added: “Armed with the knowledge of which genes are driving the disease we will be able to group patients based on their genetic makeup and determine those who will benefit most from certain treatments, helping to save more lives.”

The DNA from each of the samples will be sequenced – like reading and collecting all the letters in a book. These are then compared to find the mistakes that are commonly found in cancers providing researchers with knowledge of the faults that are ‘driving’ the cancer. These could then be targeted with new personalised medicines tailored to the patient’s genetic makeup.

This ambitious project is now possible thanks to the latest advances in technology made available through an exclusive agreement with Illumina. Today’s genetic sequencing machines are up to a million times faster than those used for the Human Genome Project ten years ago, enabling the scientists involved in ICGC to decode entire cancer genomes quickly and relatively cheaply.

Professor Ros Eeles from the Institute of Cancer Research and The Royal Marsden, who co-leads the prostate cancer ICGC study with Professor Colin Cooper from the ICR and Professors David Neal and Douglas Easton from The University of Cambridge, said: “One of the major challenges in treating prostate cancer is determining who needs aggressive treatment – some are slow growing and will never need treatment whilst others will develop quickly.

“By knowing the genetic differences we may be able to identify which men are at higher risk, so we can target treatment to those patients and potentially save thousands from unnecessary therapy. The second challenge is that the more aggressive prostate cancers can become resistant to our current treatments. Knowing the genetic make-up of such prostate cancers will help us take a targeted approach to developing new treatments for these cancers that would otherwise kill the patient.”

Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “We’re delighted to be playing a leading role in the biggest cancer research collaboration in the world. More than 40,000 people every year in the UK are diagnosed with prostate and oesophageal cancers and the incidence of both is increasing. But this is an incredibly exciting time in understanding the link between different genes and cancer. Armed with knowledge of which mistakes in genes are driving which cancers, doctors and scientists will be able to maximise the chances of cure for each patient by picking the best treatments and by developing new and more targeted treatments for people with oesophageal and prostate cancers in the future.

“Thanks to the generosity and support of our donors we’re able to carry out this life-saving work which we hope will ultimately increase survival from cancer.”


For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8054 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.