Doctors analysed 10 000 tumours – here’s what they found

A breakthrough in research could open up possibilities for new treatments.
A breakthrough in research could open up possibilities for new treatments.

In a previous Health24 article, a study from the medical journal Lancet predicted that South Africa could see an increase of 78% in the number of cancer cases by 2030. 

For decades researchers have been trying to come up with ways to fight the devastating effects of cancer. 

And now, a consortium of scientists reported that they have established the genetic blueprints of 33 different cancer types.

The hope of this research is that DNA similarities observed in 10 000 tumour samples – arising in different sites in the body – might allow targeted treatments to fight cancers no matter where they occur.

More targeted treatments

Ideally, "patients will have the best shot at successful treatment if their tumours can first be classified according to their genomic and molecular makeup," explained scientist Prof Christopher Benz.

He's a member of The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) Network, the group that produced the new report. He's also a professor of cancer and developmental therapeutics at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in San Francisco.

Speaking in an institute news release, Benz said the TCGA insights "will provide a new foundation for future cancer research efforts and clinical trials."

Tumours can share basic genetic makeup

For years, scientists and oncologists have been moving away from the notion of categorising and treating cancers based on where in the body they occur.

Instead, projects like the TCGA have raised awareness that tumours can share the same basic genetic makeup – even if they occur in discrete locales. Targeting treatments to these shared genetics might, therefore, be far more effective an approach than the traditional "site-specific" method.

The new work, collectively called the PanCancer Atlas, was published on 5 April in a series of papers in Cell journals.

"This project is the culmination of more than a decade of groundbreaking work," NIH Director Dr Francis Collins said in an news release. "This analysis provides cancer researchers with unprecedented understanding of how, where and why tumours arise in humans, enabling better informed clinical trials and future treatments."

Carolyn Hutter directs the Division of Genome Sciences at the National Human Genome Research Institute. Speaking in the NIH news release, she said, "TCGA was the first project of its scale to characterise – at the molecular level – cancer across a breadth of cancer types."

For example, the scientific effort has already uncovered strong molecular similarities between "squamous cell" cancers of the head and neck, lung, bladder, cervix and oesophagus. That means these cancers might someday be classed together, even though they arise in different parts of the body.

The next step

All of these insights should help doctors focus treatments to hit genetic or molecular vulnerabilities unique to particular cancers. The next step could be to sort out why particular tumour types develop, and how they then progress.

Having the PanCancer Atlas on hand "is really important for us to look in future studies at why these alterations are there, and to predict outcomes for patients," another UNC participant, geneticist Katherine Hoadley, explained in the university news release.

Image credit: iStock

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