Decoding Cancer Genes

I don’t think I’ve ever talked about medical stuff on my blog, but the complexity of the human body has always fascinated and confounded me. I never wanted to be a doctor, but my two cousins are brilliant doctor-researchers and they explain complex medical issues incredibly well and through them I have a sliver of a window into the world of medical academics.

The news that “researchers have decoded all the genes of a person with cancer and found a set of mutations that may have caused the disease or aided its progression” seems like an incredible leap forward in the understanding of cancer.

The new research, by looking at the entire genome — all the DNA — and aiming to find all the mutations involved in a particular cancer, differs markedly from earlier studies, which have searched fewer genes for individual mutations. The project, which took months and cost $1 million, was made possible by recent advances in technology that have made it easier and cheaper to analyze 100 million DNA snippets than it used to be to analyze 100.

The study was done at Washington University in St. Louis and is being published Thursday in the journal Nature. It is the first report of a “cancer genome,” and researchers say many more are to come.

Having the full genome decoded expands the pool of suspects dramatically… and that could change the way that cancers are treated.

Indeed, 8 of the 10 mutations his group found in the leukemia patient had never been linked to the disease before and would not have been found with the more traditional, “usual suspects” approach.

Despite all the years of research, I find it amazing that there is still so much that is not known about cancer. Forget cancer, but about the human body! It is completely understandable and completely frustrating at the same time. In fact the article talks about how they studied others with the same disease and none of them had the eight mutations of the first patient. So it seems like it will take a lot more effort and research to find the commonality that causes all the patients to start at different points but end up with the same disease.

Still, it seems to be a wonderful first step.

Dr. Wilson said he hoped that in 5 to 20 years, decoding a patient’s cancer genome would consist of dropping a spot of blood onto a chip that slides into a desktop computer and getting back a report that suggests which drugs will work best.

I hope that number is closer to the 5 year mark – for the sake of all those who suffer through cancer and for the families that love them.