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Cancer Research UK launches nine high-tech gene projects

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by Cancer Research UK | News

18 November 2011

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Unravelling the genetic secrets behind a range of cancers – from understanding how certain genes control cancer to determining how the disease evades treatment – is the aim of a new initiative from Cancer Research UK.

The Genomics Initiative will use the latest high-tech gene sequencing machines to address specific research questions that until now were impossible to answer.

The latest sequencing technology allows researchers to scan all of the genes in a cancer – like reading an instruction manual for the disease – and identify each of the cancer causing faults a million times faster than the Human Genome Project ten years ago.

The genes involved in cancer not only cause the disease but also drive its changes between different forms, influence how aggressive it is and whether certain treatments will work.

Armed with this knowledge, the researchers will be able to piece together information that will tell them about people at greater risk of cancer, pick the right treatments for the disease and start developing new drugs.

The Genomics Initiative is being funded by Cancer Research UK’s Catalyst Club – a pioneering venture to raise £10 million for various research projects, including the Genomics Initiative, on personalised medicine for people with cancer.

One of the projects will look at rare types of skin cancer. The study, led by Professor Richard Marais at The Institute of Cancer Research, will look for the genes that make certain types of skin cancer more aggressive with the ultimate aim of improving treatments for patients with these rare forms of the disease.

Professor Marais said: “We urgently need new drugs to treat these rare but very aggressive forms of skin cancer. This project will let us build a bigger picture of the genes that are involved in the disease giving us an insight into the inner workings of skin cancer.”

Another project will attempt to understand why kidney cancer has unique genetic defects in different parts of the same tumour. This can result in a tumour biopsy not giving the full picture of what is going on in the cancer. Professor Charles Swanton, at Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute, is trying to understand why this happens and hopes to find new markers that predict who will benefit from targeted treatments.

Professor Swanton said: “Attempts to identify markers to predict if patients with kidney cancer will respond to distinct targeted drugs have so far been unsuccessful. Our research is investigating whether this may result from the genetic variation within single tumours, such that an oncologist may not be able to fully trust the genomic information present in a single biopsy. We hope to be able to find markers for drug resistance that are common across multiple biopsies in the same tumour, that may guide the treating clinician to determine the right treatments are given to each patient.”

The other seven projects are:

• Finding genes that put people at a higher risk of developing pre-cancerous growths called polyps and bowel cancer

• How follicular lymphoma transforms into the more aggressive B cell lymphoma

• Sequencing the genes in an aggressive form of childhood brain cancer

• Looking for the genes that affect how pancreatic cancer patients respond to treatment

• Identifying key genes in skin cancer in people with no family history

• Studying 1,000 women to find new genes linked to breast cancer

• Understanding how stem cells in leukaemia pick up new genetic faults

Dr Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “We’re delighted to launch the Genomics Initiative, which takes advantage of powerful new technologies to drive an exciting area of cancer research. We know that mistakes in genes are behind cancer, and they also drive how cancer act and respond to treatment. Understanding this better will bring real benefits for patients in the future, playing an essential role in the push towards personalised cancer treatment.”


For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8300, or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059