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Scientists make cancer break through

Researchers decode a cancer patient's complete DNA

Thursday, 06 November 2008

A true ‘landmark in cancer research’ has been reached after experts at Washington University decoded the complete DNA of a cancer patient tracing the disease to its genetic roots.

The research team identified 10 gene mutations which appeared key to the development of the woman's acute myeloid leukaemia, of which only two had been linked to the disease before.

The sequencing technique, described in the journal Nature, could be applied to other cancers and aid the design of targeted drugs.

Geneticist Dr Francis Collins, a former director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute, called the study a "true landmark in cancer research".

"In the past, cancer researchers have been 'looking under the lamp-post' to find the causes of malignancy - but now the team from Washington University has lit up the whole street,” he said, “This achievement ushers in a new era of comprehensive understanding of the fundamental nature of cancer, and offers great promise for the development of powerful new approaches to diagnosis, prevention and treatment."

The researchers took two samples from the woman in her 50s - who later died from the disease - and examined the DNA for differences.

One sample was taken from healthy skin cells, the other from bone marrow tissue made up of cancerous cells. They found that virtually every cell in the tumour sample had nine of the key mutations.

Three of the newly-discovered mutations were in genes that normally suppress tumour growth, and four were in genes linked to the spread of cancer.

The other appears to affect the transport of drugs into the cells, possibly fuelling resistance to cancer therapy.

Lead researcher Dr Richard Wilson said: "This suggests that there is a tremendous amount of genetic diversity in cancer, even in this one disease.

"There are probably many, many ways to mutate a small number of genes to get the same result, and we're only looking at the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the combinations of genetic mutations that can lead to AML."

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