NHGRI Pushing Cancer Innovation

The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) within NIH continues to push the boundaries of innovation. The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) a flagship program that NHGRI co-funds with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is doing research to understand the molecular basis of cancer. This is being done by carefully examining the genomes of individual cancers looking specifically for alterations in DNA and RNA and how these changes can drive the disease.

TCGA began in 2006 as a three year pilot program with the aim to analyze more than 10,000 specimens of 20 tumor types by 2014. TCGA is on its way to achieving that ambitious goal having just passed the program’s midpoint with data from 25 tumor types available. The data includes information on breast, ovarian, lung, colorectal, and brain cancers.

Some results have been unexpected, according to TCGA Program Director Brad Ozenberger, PhD, who is also Deputy Director of NHGRI’s Division of Genomic Medicine. “Our goal was to create a large community data set, but we didn’t anticipate how quickly the data would translate into clinical utility.”

For example, in the case of glioblastoma (brain) tumors, TCGA findings helped to explain drug resistance patterns that immediately indicated treatment changes for some patients. In the case of ovarian cancers, findings showed both new potential drug targets and the need for customized therapies. The first genomic look at lung squamous cell carcinoma has also led to new diagnostic and therapeutic targets.

“In establishing a comprehensive atlas of mutations, TCGA has been successful in beginning to help researchers understand what is driving common cancers, both their initiation and progression. We’re starting to see TCGA data enter clinical practice, where there is an increasing emphasis on genomic analyses and in therapy where it is being customized for individual cancer patients”, according to Dr. Ozenberger.

However, in 2015, TCGA will wind down but NCI and NHGRI will continue to work together and separately to develop new initiatives including new clinical studies that will explore the genomic underpinnings of metastasis and the individual’s response to therapy.

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