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ICR Scientists at Forefront of High-Tech Gene Sequencing Initiative



Friday 18 November 2011



The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) is launching three projects that use the latest high-tech gene sequencing machines to unravel the genetic secrets behind a range of cancers.

The studies form one third of the nine research projects funded through Cancer Research UK’s new Genomics Initiative*, which uses the new technology to address specific research questions that until now were impossible to answer.

These machines allow researchers to scan all of the genes in a cancer – like reading an instruction manual for the disease – and identify each of the cancer-causing faults a million times faster than the Human Genome Project ten years ago.

The genes involved in cancer not only cause the disease but also drive its changes between different forms, influence how aggressive it is and whether certain treatments will work. Armed with this knowledge, the researchers will be able to piece together information that will tell them about people at greater risk of cancer, pick the right treatments for the disease and start developing new drugs.

Head of the ICR’s Division of Genetics and Epidemiology, Professor Nazneen Rahman, is leading a project that aims to find new breast cancer risk genes by scanning the DNA of 1,000 women with breast cancer.

Although many risk genes for breast cancer have already been identified, at least 60 per cent of the increased cancer risk of relatives of breast cancer patients remains unexplained.

Women in the study all have a family history of breast cancer and do not have faults in known breast cancer genes including BRCA1 and BRCA2. Professor Rahman’s team will scan all 20,000 genes in each woman’s DNA,  looking for the gene faults that have contributed to their breast cancer.

“Although we have made a lot of progress in identifying genes that can cause cancer, we are reaching the limit of discoveries we can reasonably expect to make using older technologies,” Professor Rahman said. “Armed with high-speed next generation sequencing, we can now look at many more genes in many more samples. If we can find new genes that increase the risk of cancer occurring, we may be able to use this information to make sure women most at risk are targeted for monitoring and prevention strategies. New genes may also serve as targets for new treatments.”

A second project, led by ICR Team Leader Professor Richard Marais, is looking for the genes driving the development of rare, aggressive types of skin cancer. Most melanomas arise on sun-exposed hairy skin in Caucasians. However, they can also form on non-hairy skin such as palms and soles of feet – accounting for 80 per cent of melanoma cases in non-Caucasians – along with the eyes and the mucous membranes. The biology of these cancers is poorly understood.

Professor Marais’ study will look for the genes that make these skin cancers more aggressive with the ultimate aim of improving treatments for patients with rare forms of the disease. His team will sequence the whole genome of tumour samples from patients with rare melanomas, and compare them to the patients’ normal cells, to find defects that could be driving these cancers.

Professor Marais said: “We urgently need new drugs to treat these rare but very aggressive forms of skin cancer. This project will let us build a bigger picture of the genes that are involved in the disease giving us an insight into the inner workings of skin cancer.”

A third project, led by ICR Team Leader Dr Chris Jones, will study a rare type of childhood brain tumour called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG). DIPG tumours arise in the brainstem, which means surgical removal is not possible and the disease is unfortunately always fatal.

Dr Jones and colleagues will carry out whole genome sequencing on biopsy samples to create a catalogue of all the molecular alterations present. They aim to improve understanding of how these tumours arise, and discover what makes them different from other types of gliomas. The scientists will also look specifically for mutations in genes for which drugs have already been developed, along with potential new treatment targets.

“New therapies are desperately needed for this disease,” Dr Jones said. “Our study will be the most comprehensive ever carried out for Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma and we hope it will lead to new strategies for treating these patients.”




Media Contact: ICR Science Communications Manager Jane Bunce on 0207 153 5106 or after hours 077217 47900

Notes to editor:

* The Genomics Initiative is being funded by Cancer Research UK’s Catalyst Club – a pioneering venture to raise £10 million for various research projects, including the Genomics Initiative, on personalised medicine for people with cancer.

The other projects are led by the University of Oxford; Queen Mary, University of London; Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute; University of Liverpool; and University of Leeds.

The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR)

  • The ICR is Europe’s leading cancer research centre
  • The ICR has been ranked the UK’s top academic research centre, based on the results of the Higher Education Funding Council’s Research Assessment Exercise
  • The ICR works closely with partner The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust to ensure patients immediately benefit from new research. Together the two organisations form the largest comprehensive cancer centre in Europe
  • The ICR has charitable status and relies on voluntary income
  • As a college of the University of London, the ICR also provides postgraduate higher education of international distinction
  • Over its 100-year history, the ICR’s achievements include identifying the potential link between smoking and lung cancer which was subsequently confirmed, discovering that DNA damage is the basic cause of cancer and isolating more cancer-related genes than any other organisation in the world
  • The ICR is home to the world’s leading academic cancer drug development team. Several important anti-cancer drugs used worldwide were synthesised at the ICR and it has discovered an average of two preclinical candidates each year over the past five years.

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