NIH Launches Cancer Research Effort
NIH officials on Wednesday launched an effort to map "all the hundreds of molecular glitches that turn normal healthy cells into cancers" in order to foster understanding of the disease and spur the discovery of treatments, the Washington Post reports. According to the Post, the project, called the Cancer Genome Atlas, will try to identify "the full spectrum of genetic errors that allow cancer cells to divide recklessly, spread and take root throughout the body" and could eventually cost more than $1 billion (Weiss, Washington Post, 12/14).
Government officials said they first will conduct a three-year pilot program and assess the results before launching a full project, so it is too early to determine how much a full project would cost. During the pilot phase, scientists will study hundreds of tumor samples from two or three types of cancer that have not yet been selected, the New York Times reports.
NIH officials said they will choose types of cancer that have less variability in order to reduce the risk of failure, since each cancer cell contains a complete genome. Officials also said they would choose cancers with more available tumor samples (Pollack, New York Times, 12/14). Following the selection of cancers, scientists will analyze the relevant genetic traits of the cells and correlate those details to the cancer's clinical characteristics.
Scientists will report findings on a freely accessible computer database as the atlas is filled, so that researchers, doctors and the public can view the information (Washington Post, 12/14).
According to the Baltimore Sun, because each cancer cell has its own genome, mapping every tumor would be equivalent to mapping as many as 12,500 human genome projects (Rockoff, Baltimore Sun, 12/14). The human genome project, which was completed in 2003, cost about $2 billion.
According to Francis Collins, director of NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute, mapping the equivalent of "thousands of human genome projects" could be costly, but he noted that gene research costs have decreased significantly in recent years (Washington Post, 12/14). Collins added that the project "is an audacious undertaking" (New York Times, 12/14).
In addition, researchers could face difficulty determining the genes that play important roles in mutations.
Michael Stratton, a researcher with Britain's Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute -- which studies cancer genes -- said, "Sorting the 'passengers' from the 'drivers' is a significant issue."
Because no two cells in a malignant tumor might be identical, successful sequencing of some cancer genes might miss other genes, and if the missed genes are involved in causing malignancy, "treatment would suffer," the Sun reports (Baltimore Sun, 12/14).
NIH Director Elias Zerhouni said the project "is really the beginning of an era," adding that the time is right for a huge push to map the cancer genome.
Collins said the project will "tackle the cancer problem like it's never been tackled before" (Neergaard, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/14).
National Cancer Institute Director Andrew von Eschenbach said he sees cancer soon developing from a killer to a "chronic, manageable condition," adding, "The future will look no more like the past than a butterfly resembles a caterpillar."
However, some scientists questioned why the project is being undertaken at this time, when the federal research budget is already tight.
In addition, Garth Anderson, a cancer geneticist at Roswell Park Center Institute, criticized the project, noting that because cancers are by definition unstable, even single tumors have cells with different mutations. Anderson added that while a few new drugs have proved to be effective against certain cancers, they typically add only a few months to patients' lives. He said, "If it's going to cost me $100,000 to add 45 days of life, I'd rather drop dead and give my kids the money."
However, Bruce Stillman, president of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and an adviser to NCI, said, "It would be ridiculous to say at this time, 'Okay, we finished the [human] genome. Let's not do anything with it.' To say we shouldn't be doing this is to say we're not interested in solving cancer" (Washington Post, 12/14).
APM's "Marketplace" on Tuesday reported on the announcement. The segment includes comments from Anna Barker, deputy director of the National Cancer Institute; Patrick O'Connor, head of oncology research for Pfizer; and Robert Weinberg, cancer researcher at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research (Palmer, "Marketplace," APM, 12/13). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer. In addition, PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" included an interview with Barker and Collins about the announcement (Brown, "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," PBS, 12/13). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.