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Wider legacy for headline genetics research

Posted on 28 March, 2013 by Claire Bithell
You may already have heard about the latest findings in cancer genetics from our researchers here at The Institute of Cancer Research -- covered widely on television and radio yesterday evening, in today's papers, and in a little more depth on Cancer Research UK's Science Blog.

The study, which identified 80 regions of the genome that can increase an individual’s risk of prostate, breast and ovarian cancers, is the largest ever of its kind. Although co-led by researchers here at the ICR, the scale of work compelled a collaboration with an international consortium of scientists, and required the support of several funders, including Cancer Research UK and the European Union.

Most of the media coverage has focussed on the implications of this work for screening. These findings mean that we can identify the top 1% of men that have a 50% chance of developing prostate cancer. Researchers estimate that this could lead to the introduction of a widespread genetic test in around three to five years. This potentially short-term medical application is, understandably, the finding that has attracted the most media attention.

However, what is less headline grabbing is the wider legacy this work gives for our understanding of cancer. By identifying genetic risk factors we are starting to unravel the causes of cancer and ICR researchers hope this understanding could lead to the identification of potential new drug targets.

The genetic factors identified by the study give researchers clues to the molecular pathways that are important in cancer development. Some of these pathways related to specific cancers, whereas some overlapped in breast, ovarian and prostate cancer suggesting there is a common mechanism. Some pathways were already implicated in cancer, whereas others had not previously been identified as having a role -- giving rise to potential new avenues of research. There were also some findings that explained previous mysteries; for example in prostate cancer mechanisms by which cells stick to each other appear to be important, which explains why a medicine that interferes with cell adhesion has an impact in prostate cancer.

Unfortunately these findings will not lead immediately to new medicines. The next step for researchers is to go back to the laboratory to do more research. But the future is bright: findings like this have a track record of being the building blocks that lead to new treatments. At the ICR we have a remarkable track record in developing new medicines; we have discovered and nominated for development 16 drug candidates since 2005 alone. So we hope this research will give promising leads for the development of new medicines in ICR laboratories in the coming years.


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