Molecular similarities among different tumour types have been identified, revealing new ways to classify cancer.
Analysing the genomes of more than 3,000 tumours across 12 different cancer types, scientists found that certain tumours were different at the molecular level, despite being found in the same part of the body.
Conversely, cancers found at different locations were seen to share genetic similarities. For example, the team found that bladder cancer shared molecular patterns with certain lung and head-and-neck cancers.
'For years we've been looking at one tumour type at a time, but there are patterns you can only spot by making connections across different tissues and tumour types', said Professor Josh Stuart, lead author of one of the pan-cancer studies in Nature Genetics. 'Finding these similarities across tissues can have important implications for treatment'.
The research means that cancers could be identified by their molecular characteristics, so treatment could become more targeted to the specific genetic mutations from which they arise.
Professor Stuart said: 'This could allow oncologists to apply all they know about treating head-and-neck squamous cell tumours to the ten percent of bladder cancers that have the same characteristics'.
Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, a Cancer Research UK scientist at the University of Cambridge who was not involved with the study, said the work was 'fascinating'.
'It suggests a departure from the way we distinguish between different cancers - not by where they appear in the body but by the molecular changes they share. It also reveals a number of similarities and differences between certain cancer types, which might help us to apply existing treatments in new ways'.
The pan-cancer research forms part of The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) project, which is led by the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute, USA.