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Studies Highlight Complexity of Tumor Genes

September 05, 2008 12:59 PM
by Emily Coakley
Examining the genetics of cancer is yielding new insights, but not necessarily ones scientists were hoping for.

Cures May Be Harder To Develop

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A $100 million program to learn more about the genes that are part of certain cancers has yielded new information about brain cancer, USA Today reports.

A trio of studies into brain and pancreatic cancer cells appeared Friday in the journals Science and Nature.

In the Nature study, a team from the Cancer Genome Atlas Research Network, including researchers from Europe, Australia and the United States, examined more than 200 samples from glioblastoma multiforme, a type of brain tumor.

Another team at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center studied more than 22 samples of the glioblastoma and found a set of “broken, missing or overactive genes,” the paper said. The Hopkins studies were published in Science.

The studies, while heralded as a breakthrough in USA Today, had a more subdued reception within the science community.

Stephen Elledge of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital told Nature Magazine: “Unfortunately this wasn’t what we all hoped for, but there is useful information in there, and what they’re learning is more of what they already learned—which is that cancers are extremely complex.”

One of the lead researchers on two studies, Bert Vogelstein, said the studies might change how cancer drugs are developed, according to Bloomberg.com. Some had hoped that with genetic exploration, science could develop medicines that target specific genes for all cancers. For example, Gleevec, made by Novartis AG, already targets a certain gene for the blood cancer chronic myelogenous leukemia.

Vogelstein says the research published this week suggests that scientists will have to look at “disrupting the broader biological pathways that support cancer growth,” Nature reported.

“It is apparent from studies like ours that it is going to be even more difficult than expected to derive real cures,” Vogelstein said, according to Nature.

Background: The Cancer Genome Atlas

Exploring the genes behind cancer is an ambitious task. According to U.S. News and World Report, scientists have to examine 12,500 times the information that they did to map the human genome.

The National Institutes of Health is funding the research. The studies published this week are from the TCGA’s pilot phase, according to U.S. News and World Report. Exploring the entire genome could cost an estimated $1.5 billion.

Reference: Cancer Web Guide

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