Scientists have completed “the most comprehensive study of whole cancer genomes to date” in an attempt to understand more about the genetic mechanisms of the disease.
An international team of researchers involved in the Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes project looked at the genetic material, or genome, of tumours.
The researchers believe their findings could “significantly improve understanding of cancer” and help clinicians understand more about why patients with the same disease respond differently to the same treatment.
Dr Peter Campbell, of the Wellcome Sanger Institute and a member of the Pan-Cancer project steering committee, said: “This work is helping to answer a long-standing medical difficulty: why two patients with what appear to be the same cancer can have very different outcomes to the same drug treatment.
“We show that the reasons for these different behaviours are written in the DNA.
“The genome of each patient’s cancer is unique, but there are a finite set of recurring patterns, so, with large enough studies, we can identify all these patterns to optimise diagnosis and treatment.”
Experts from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the Francis Crick Institute in London, the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, and the universities of Oxford, Glasgow and East Anglia were part of the international team involved in the project.
They analysed and sequenced nearly 2,700 whole genomes of cancer samples and mapped mutations in 38 different types of tumours.
The researchers also discovered that it is possible to identify mutations which occurred years, sometimes even decades, before the tumour appeared.
Dr Lincoln Stein, from the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research in Canada, who is also a member of the Pan-Cancer project steering committee, said: “The findings we have shared with the world today are the culmination of an unparalleled, decade-long collaboration that explored the entire cancer genome.
“With the knowledge we have gained about the origins and evolution of tumours, we can develop new tools and therapies to detect cancer earlier, develop more targeted therapies and treat patients more successfully.”
The comprehensive analysis is detailed in six papers published in Nature, and is part of a wider collection of 22 papers published in other Nature Research journals.
The project involved 1,300 scientists and clinicians from 37 countries.