The US government has announced that it will provide initial funds of $100 million for the 'Cancer Genome Atlas', a project that aims to catalogue the hundreds of different genetic errors that can turn a normal cell into a cancerous one. Launched by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) last week, the project's leaders say it will revolutionise the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of cancer. 'This really is a new era', said NIH director Elias Zerhouni. The results are to be made freely available via computer databases to researchers around the world.
The scientists hope that by identifying all the genetic mutations involved in each form of the 200 or so different cancers that affect the human body, they will be able to find out precisely how aggressive a particular cancer is likely to be, and which drugs will be most effective against it. NIH head of genetics Francis Collins said that 'we have the opportunity, because of advances in technology, to really look at the global nature of what is wrong with the cancer cell in a way that frankly we could not have dreamed of even a few years ago'.
The initial $100 million will fund a three year pilot study, but it is estimated that the total cost of the project could reach $1 billion or more. It will involve collecting thousands of tumour specimens, followed by a painstaking genetic analysis of each one - a task that Francis Collins likened to 'thousands of human genome projects'. A similar, but smaller scale UK effort is currently underway at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge. Launched in 2000 with £10 million, the Cancer Genome Project has already pinpointed a gene mutation common in malignant skin cancers.
Meanwhile, an international group of 40 leading cancer scientists says 'the time is ripe' to undertake a large-scale project to identify all the 'control switches' of each human gene. The Human Epigenome Project (HEP) would reveal which genes are switched on in which body tissues, and would allow scientists to detect the changes in gene activity associated with cancer and other diseases. A pilot epigenome project currently underway at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute hopes to have analysed ten per cent of the genome by next autumn, and several other similar projects are already underway elsewhere. In an article published in the journal Cancer Research, the authors call for a coordinated, international effort to catalogue all these 'epigenetic' chemical markers.