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This timeline accompanies the following article: The genomics-driven era of cancer research.


DNA structure discovered

Francis Crick and James Watson publish their now legendary Nature paper describing the structure of DNA. With phenomenal understatement, they remark that their work “suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material”. In fact, the structure they described explains how DNA – a simple chemical structure – contains all the information needed to make a human. This work propelled us into the age of genetics.


‘Sanger method’ for DNA sequencing
In work that later earned him his second Nobel Prize, Federick Sanger describes a process for reading the sequence of DNA.This technique allowed scientists to spell out, one by one, the order of ‘bases’ that make up DNA. The work forms the backbone of sequencing methods used for the next several decades, including the technique behind in the Human Genome Project. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


First cancer-causing DNA change
The first naturally occurring DNA fault to cause cancer in humans is pinpointed. Researchers discover that a change in a single ‘letter’ of DNA affects the structure of the protein produced by a gene called HRAS and contributes to bladder cancer.


First draft of human genome
The Human Genome Project publishes the first draft of the human genome sequence. DNA samples from 12 anonymous volunteers were used to decipher the code. The final sequence of around 3 billion letters (completed in 2003) quickly becomes an invaluable research tool. It forms the foundation of future work investigating how changes in our DNA are involved in diseases such as cancer.


BRAF: a big success for the Cancer Genome Project
As part of the Cancer Genome Project – a precursor to today’s larger-scale International Cancer Genome Consortium – our scientists discover that the BRAF gene is faulty in more than half of all melanoma skin cancers. Read more on the blog.


Common inherited genetic variation mapped
Scientists publish the HapMap database, which outlines common variation in the human genome. While the Human Genome Project outlined the general ‘landscape of the genome’, this work went a step further by mapping the areas in this landscape that are commonly different from person to person. These areas contain single-letter changes in the DNA code, called ‘single-nucleotide polymorphisms’, or SNPs. SNPs are passed on from parent to child and contribute to diseases such as cancer. This work underpins future genome-wide association studies in cancer.


First GWAS studies in cancer

Building on the work of the HapMap project (see earlier timeline entry), the first genome-wide association studies (GWAS) in cancer start to emerge. Rather than pinpoint rare ‘high risk’ gene faults (which are associated with a dramatically increased risk of cancer), these studies pinpoint the much more common ‘low risk’ SNPs that act together to moderately increase cancer risk. Professor Doug Easton and Dr Ros Eeles are among several Cancer Research UK-funded scientists who have led the world in GWAS studies in recent years.

April 2008

International Cancer Genome Consortium launched
Scientists announce the launch of the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC). By pooling scientific talent and resources from around the globe, this ambitious project is using next-generation sequencing technologies to produce comprehensive catalogues of the genetic faults involved in the world’s major cancers. Just days before this announcement, James D Watson, who co-discovered the structure of DNA, became the first ever person to have his whole genome read using so-called ‘next-generation’ sequencing machines.

Nov 2008

First whole cancer genome sequenced
Scientists in America decode the whole DNA sequence of a cancer for the first time. They use next-generation sequencing technology to read the genetic code of leukaemia cells of a 50 year old woman. By comparing this code with the code of DNA from her healthy cells, they uncover ten genetic mutations linked to her cancer.

Dec 2008

Groundbreaking skin and lung cancer genome sequences
Hot on the heels of researchers who sequenced the first whole cancer genome in 2008, two groundbreaking reports from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute unveil the first comprehensive genetic maps of lung cancer and melanoma. The maps show around 23,000 mutations in the small cell lung cancer genome, and more than 33,000 in the melanoma genome. The mutations largely reflect the DNA damage caused by tobacco smoke (for lung cancer) and UV light (for melanoma). The researchers estimate that, as lung cancer develops, one mutation is acquired and ‘fixed’ in the genome for every 15 cigarettes smoked.

July 2011

Cancer Research UK launches ICGC projects
Cancer Research UK launches two pioneering projects to identify the key genetic faults behind oesophageal and prostate cancers. Part of the International Cancer Genome Consortium, the projects are scanning 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.

Nov 2011

Cancer Research UK launches the Genomics Initiative
Cancer Research UK launches nine high-tech projects to unravel the genetic secrets behind a range of cancers Over the coming months, the genomics initiative will use the latest gene sequencing machines to address specific research questions that until now were impossible to answer. In each of the nine funded projects, a collection of cancer samples will undergo complete genetic sequencing. This information will open new avenues for understanding patient response to treatment and for developing new targeted therapies and genetic tests, all of which are essential for making personalised medicine a reality.

March 2012

Extraordinary detail about the genetic evolution of tumours

Cancer Research UK scientists use next-generation sequencing technology to map in fine detail the genetic landscape of a single kidney cancer, and unravel its genetic evolution.

The main finding – that only around one-third of genetic changes are shared across multiple biopsies of the same cancer – is compelling. The research could explain why some cancers are so difficult to treat, and suggests that we need to find ways to target the shared mutations.

This work is being taken forward in more patients as part of our Genomics Initiative.