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Surprising Science

How Genetics Is Revolutionizing Cancer Research

The Cancer Genome Atlas project, already several years underway, is transforming the way scientists think about and treat cancer.  

The 20th century was dominated by breakthroughs in physics and chemistry, but the 21st century will belong to genetics and biotechnology. Cancer research is just one area among many that is being transformed by the sequencing of the human genome. This was one of the topics discussed in our recent panel with leading cancer researchers, part of our Breakthroughs: Cancer series. 

In 2006 the National Institutes of Health established The Cancer Genome Atlas, a systematic attempt to map the key genomic changes in major types and subtypes of cancer. The initiative launched with a pilot program to study brain, lung, and ovarian cancers, and in 2009 it expanded to study 20 cancer types over the next five years. 

So far, what we’ve learned from The Cancer Genome Atlas is disconcerting in the sense that we’ve discovered far more subtypes of cancer than were previously known. But this information will be “extremely informative” for targeted therapies, says Harvard cell biologist Lewis Cantley. For the most part, scientists have given up on the idea of a universal cure for cancer and are looking for treatments that are tailored to the specific type of cancer and the patient’s genetic makeup. 

Another encouraging thing to come from these studies, says Cantley, is the discovery of biomarkers that will allow for much more successful clinical trials:

Now we do a clinical trial and 15% of the patients respond. If you don’t have thousands and thousands of patients it’s hard to prove that that 15% is actually relevant, and the drug may fail to be approved in spite of a huge investment in the trial and many, many years. There are examples that we know of where it was very clear to the clinicians that the drug was working, but it still didn’t get approved. So if we can design trials where we tease out early on who is going to respond and who isn’t then that 15% becomes the 100% because you only do the trial on them. 

Though the full impact is just beginning to be felt, genetics will revolutionize the way scientists think about and treat cancer. “The full picture of genomic change is really very dramatic and quite wonderful,” says Harold Varmus, Director of the National Cancer Institute.

The views expressed here are solely those of the participants, and do not represent the views of Big Think or its sponsors.


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