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Fred Sanger: the giant of genomics

Posted on 25 November, 2013 by Joe Dunckley
Last week, the biochemist Dr Fred Sanger died at the age of 95. He made an enormous contribution to research throughout the fields of biology and medicine, and we were all sad to hear the news.

Dr Sanger is best know for the breakthroughs that earned him two Nobel prizes: the development first of methods for determining the sequence of the amino acid building blocks in proteins, and later of the 'Sanger method' for sequencing DNA. He was not a cancer researcher — he tested his protein sequencing method on the hormone insulin, and applied his DNA sequencing method to simple viruses — but the methods that he devised have enabled a revolution in our understanding of diseases like cancer. Sanger sequencing was the workhorse of the Human Genome Project, and, though it is now largely supplanted by faster 'next generation' methods in large-scale genome projects, it remains a part of the everyday cancer research toolbox.

As our Chief Executive, Professor Alan Ashworth, said on Wednesday: "a  huge contribution to our current knowledge of cancer and its genetic origin was made by Fred Sanger's brilliance in inventing technologies to study the sequence of DNA."

The genomics revolution in medicine is still sometimes slighted as being full of hype — all promise and no results. But the fact is, without genomics and the public resource of the Human Genome Project a great many of our discoveries and breakthroughs would not be possible.

The BRCA2 sequence on a cycle path near the Sanger Institute (Image credit: Joe Dunckley for the ICR)

The 10,257 stripes on this mile of cycle path near the Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire depict the sequence of BRCA2, a gene tracked down by ICR and Sanger Institute scientists.
We could pick any number of our projects to illustrate this fact, but it is perhaps best demonstrated by some of our collaborations with the Sanger Institute — the Wellcome Trust's genome centre in Cambridgeshire.

Thanks to Dr Sanger's methods, in the mid-1990s, we were able to isolate the BRCA2 gene, mutations to which are famously implicated in familial breast cancer. This has transformed the opportunities and outlook for families carrying the gene, and similar discoveries have followed. The BRCA2 collaboration was followed by the discovery of the role of BRAF mutations in driving cancers including melanoma. A drug which attacks cells with BRAF mutations, vemurafenib, was recently recommended for use on the NHS — a very visible sign of the genomic revolution reaching patients.

And just this past week we reported yet again how genomics research is transforming our understanding of cancer. Professor Mel Greaves's team, in another collaboration with the Sanger Institute, looked at the variation between different cells from a single tumour, showing how an individual cancer evolves and diversifies as it develops, and building an evolutionary tree. We have known for some time now that this diversity poses a challenge for cancer treatment, as some cells within the tumour are able to evade drugs which are targeted to one specific mutation. But the new research brings us a step closer to treatment strategies which attack the evolutionary tree at the trunk rather than individual branches.

As Isaac Newton said, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Our own discoveries are only possible because we stand on the shoulders of giants like Fred Sanger.


genetics genomics
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