By Robert Preidt
The hope: that DNA similarities observed between 10,000 tumor samples -- arising in different sites in the body -- might allow targeted treatments to fight cancers no matter where they occur.
Ideally, "patients will have the best shot at successful treatment if their tumors can first be classified according to their genomic and molecular makeup," explained scientist Dr. 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."
That's because for years, scientists and oncologists have been moving away from the notion of categorizing and treating cancers based on where in the body they occur.
Instead, projects like the TCGA have raised awareness that tumors 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 April 5 in a series of papers in Cell journals.
The $300 million effort was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and involved about 150 scientists at more than two dozen centers across North America.
"This project is the culmination of more than a decade of groundbreaking work," NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said in an NIH news release. "This analysis provides cancer researchers with unprecedented understanding of how, where and why tumors 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 characterize -- 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 esophagus. That means these cancers might someday be classed together, even though they arise in different parts of the body.
All of these insights should help doctors focus treatments to hit genetic or molecular vulnerabilities unique to particular cancers.
"This new molecular-based classification system should greatly help in the clinic," agreed TCGA participant Charles Perou. He's a professor of molecular oncology at the University of North Carolina's Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.
"These findings also provide many new therapeutic opportunities, which can and will be tested in the next phase of human clinical trials," Perou said in a UNC news release.
The next step could be to sort out why particular tumor 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.