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Annual Review 2010/11 – Revolutionising the way we diagnose and treat cancer

by Oliver Childs | Analysis

30 July 2011

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DNA molecule

Studying DNA is helping us to better personalise treatements

Imagine a time when everyone in the UK can be tested to see if their genes put them at increased risk of cancer. Then they’re given tailored lifestyle advice and screening to help prevent the disease.

Those that do develop cancer receive personalised treatment, based on their own and their cancer’s genetic make-up, giving them the greatest possible chance of beating the disease.

This might seem like an idealistic vision of the future. But we’re working to make it a reality.

In this third highight from our Annual Review, we outline our vision of the future of cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Our genes make us individual, from the way we look to our risk of developing different diseases. Cancer arises when specific genes become faulty. A key challenge we face in treating cancer is that every patient and every tumour is genetically different.

Greater knowledge of our genes and their role in cancer will allow us to better understand the biology of the disease and will ultimately lead to improvements in patient care. This year, we’ve developed three major areas of work that will help us build a more detailed picture of the many genetic changes that lead to cancer.

  1. We joined the International Cancer Genome Consortium, which aims to comprehensively catalogue the genetic faults involved in 50 different types of cancer. In March 2011, we launched an ambitious project studying the genetic changes involved in oesophageal (foodpipe) cancer – currently one of the hardest cancers to treat. We’re also working with Canadian and French scientists to study the faults behind prostate cancer. Both these projects will give us insights into the causes of these cancers that will ultimately lead to new and improved tests and treatments. We’ve written a more in-depth article on these ambitious projects to crack the cancer code on the blog.
  2. The last decade has seen rapid advances in the techniques used to analyse genetic information from human cells, making it easier, cheaper and quicker for scientists to reveal the secrets of our DNA. Our new Genomics Initiative, launched in March 2011, will take advantage of these sophisticated new methods of gene sequencing* to help us answer some key questions about cancer and how we can best treat it.
  3. We need to be ready to take advantage of what we’re learning from this research so it can benefit patients as soon as possible. Our Stratified Medicine Programme will help us lay the foundations for more personalised cancer treatment.

Each of these initiatives plays an essential part in making our vision of tailoring cancer treatment to individuals a reality.

 ‘The right treatment for the right patient – that’s what we need if we’re going to beat cancer. The work we’re doing to fully understand cancer’s genetic make-up is an essential part of this. And we’ve now got opportunities we never thought possible.’

– Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald, University of Cambridge

*What is gene sequencing?

  • Our genes are made up of miniscule DNA building blocks called ‘base pairs’ organised in a specific sequence. There are around 3 billion of these pairs in every cell – making up an amazing 2 metres of DNA.
  • Changes to the sequence of these base pairs can lead to cancer. To understand how cancer develops, scientists are studying the sequence of our genes.
  • Gene sequencing – the technique used to identify changes to these base pairs – can be done a million times faster today than in the 1980s.
  • The latest generation of sequencing machines can ‘read’ 250 billion base pairs in a week, compared to 5 million in 2000 and just 25,000 in 1990.
  • From 1989, it took 13 years to sequence all of the genes in a human cell through the Human Genome Project. Today, it would take just 8 days.

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