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Cancer genetics: plans for London-based Tumour Profiling Unit unveiled

4 February 2013
Appeared in BioNews 691

The planned Tumour Profiling Unit at The Institute for Cancer Research (ICR), London will focus on sequencing the DNA of cancer tumours to help diagnose and monitor different types of cancer, and to also identify those more likely to respond to particular treatments. The ICR is raising £3.2 million to provide new equipment and refurbished labs with a goal of providing DNA sequencing to every cancer patient.

Professor Alan Ashworth, chief executive of the ICR, believes treatment for certain cancers, such as lung and pancreatic cancer, needs a new approach. Traditional methods of radiation therapy and chemotherapy have not been very successful for many people in treatment, but a push into molecular investigation and treatment could be more effective for these diseases.

'The idea of developing old-fashioned chemotherapies is going out of the window', he said. 'Genome profiling opens up the possibility of using drugs in a context in which they were not originally developed'.

Genetic sequencing is already used for the treatment of some specific cancers. Women diagnosed with advanced breast cancer are tested for a specific variant of the HER2 gene. If tested positive, the patients would be given Herceptin. The same drug would be ineffective for those negative for the HER2 gene variant. The new laboratory may give doctors the ability to develop treatment programs that are tailored to the specific DNA mutations that may drive a cancer at that particular point in time.

Professor Ashworth says that, 'understanding how different cancers were caused by different genetic triggers was building incredibly rapidly'. He believes that in five years we will have enough information to start thinking about how to put the infrastructure into place so all patients' tumours can be sequenced and personalised therapy provided on a regular basis.

Charlotte Beardmore of the Society and College of Radiographers describes personalised cancer drugs as a 'fantastic' development, but added, 'we will still need other treatments too, we won't replace them'.

Professor Jane Maher, chief medical officer at Macmillan Cancer Support, has said she believes the new technology is very exciting but knowing when patients will feel these advances is very hard to predict. There are other underlining issues such as overcoming a tumour's ability to develop resistance.

Cancer Research UK says 430,000 people in the UK were diagnosed with cancer in 2010.

Cancer mapping laboratory opens in London
Cancer Research UK |  29 January 2013
Cancer will no longer be 'a death sentence': DNA-based treatment to transform lives within 10 years, say scientists
Mail Online |  29 January 2013
DNA map offers hope on cancer treatments
Daily Telegraph |  29 January 2013
New Tumour Profiling Unit signals push for personalised cancer treatment
The Institute of Cancer Research (press release) |  29 January 2013
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