The Pan-Cancer Genomic Study: Spotting Tumors Before They Appear

07 May, 2020
Nature journal has published advances from the Pan-Cancer genomic study. Researchers have reported that it's possible to detect genetic mutations leading to cancer before they appear. We'll explain this further in this article.
 

Cancer is a common issue worldwide. Approximately one-third of the population will suffer from a malignancy at some point in their life. It’s a huge cause of mortality and the Pan-Cancer genomic study is attempting to stop it in its tracks.

There are different factors as to why cancer develops in humans. We’ll explain them later, but it’s interesting to think that, in a way, the complexity of human nature is a cause that ends in mutation and cellular error.

Some philosophers and scientists believe it’s in our DNA to form genetic mutations that lead to cancer. They also expect it to happen because our bodies and our DNA are so intricately detailed.

In line with this, the scientific community have been studying the genetic causes of cancer. It’s this fact that the Pan-Cancer Genomic studies and the Nature article echo.

Nature has previously published articles on this topic, along with more than twenty articles released at the same time. The study group reported that they analyzed more than two thousand five hundred people with almost forty different tumors.

Scientists from different countries joined in the Pan-Cancer genomic study, framed by the human genome project. In total, 1,300 professionals worked with thirteen supercomputers to process the data.

Why cancer exists

We know that cancer is multi-factorial. In other words, apart from a few cases, we can’t pinpoint a single factor that generates malignancies. The Pan-Cancer genomic study had this premise, and wanted to sequence genes that could evolve into tumors.

 

Scientists were trying to find out how DNA changed to culminate in the uncontrolled process of abnormal cell growth and multiplication that cancer causes.

Genetic mutations can be attributed to almost a hundred different factors. Among these there are:

  • Lifestyle: tobacco, alcohol, and unbalanced diets are modifiable factors known for their contribution to cancer. Smoking, in particular, is one of the worst.
  • Age: aging prevents cells from avoiding cancer, causing uncontrolled cell multiplication.
  • Heredity: people can pass down genetic mutations. Parents can pass it to their children.
  • Luck: DNA can mutate from unknown origins. This type of mutation is currently put down to chance, but the truth is scientifically we don’t know. It’s problematic that almost 60% of tumors are put down to chance.
Some genomes.

Continue reading: What are Gene Mutations?

The human genome project

The Pan-Cancer genome study is part of the human genome project that began in 1990. It was started by the international scientific community to unravel the mysteries of human DNA.

The human genome project was due to end in 2005 but finished two years early. By 2003 they informed the world that they had encoded the entire genetic information of humans.

 

Thanks to this sequencing, it was possible to advance in the Pan-Cancer genomic study.

By knowing everything about human DNA, we can now investigate which parts were altered in each disease, including cancer.

Different entities and countries financed both projects, but that didn’t avoid a lack of funds.

Many smaller investigations, derived from the larger ones, can’t find adequate funding to continue.

We have even found economic problems in the latest publications that we’re aware of. The same researchers have stated that they weren’t rewarded for doing extra work, and they don’t know where money will come from in the future.

However, beyond these difficulties, the human genome project was a step forward for:

  • Knowing everything about our DNA
  • Storing and sharing information among scientists
  • Improving techniques for analyzing genetic information in medicine
  • Discussing the legalities of this knowledge
A doctor studying genomes.
The Pan-Cancer genomic project is part of the human genome project

Discover more: The WHO’s findings on meat and cancer

The benefits of the Pan-Cancer genomic study

The scientists involved know that this advance is important, but it doesn’t change the treatment of cancer tomorrow. The benefits of the Pan-Cancer genomic study will be long-term. In any case, it wouldn’t be possible to continue without these publications.

 

Genetic information will allow us to tailor treatments to each person. We will enter an era of individualized oncological therapy, with medications tailored to the patient.

It would also be possible to detect cancer early, perhaps with liquid biopsies.

Meaning that, if cells that start to mutate dump altered DNA into the bloodstream, we would have the techniques to find it.

As always, there will be legal questions. Ethical questions too. Could health insurance deny someone known to be a carrier of a cancer mutation?

Finally, we need to do more, but we have already made huge steps forward. We may be closer to fighting cancer as equals, and who knows, even beating it before it becomes apparent.

 
  • Weinstein, John N., et al. “The cancer genome atlas pan-cancer analysis project.” Nature genetics 45.10 (2013): 1113.
  • Aran, Dvir, Marina Sirota, and Atul J. Butte. “Systematic pan-cancer analysis of tumour purity.” Nature communications 6 (2015): 8971.
  • Gatto, Francesco, Raphael Ferreira, and Jens Nielsen. “Pan-cancer analysis of the metabolic reaction network.” Metabolic engineering 57 (2020): 51-62.
  • Nguyen, Luan, et al. “Pan-cancer landscape of homologous recombination deficiency.” bioRxiv (2020).