The atlas links different levels of gene expression to patient survival across different cancers, and also points in the direction of new drug targets.
'We are pleased to provide a stand-alone open-access resource for cancer researchers worldwide, which we hope will help accelerate their efforts to find the biomarkers needed to develop personalised cancer treatments,' said co-author Professor Fredrik Pontén of Uppsala University.
Professor Mathias Uhlén of the Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden and his team re-analysed almost 8000 patient's tumours to compile the atlas, by using a supercomputer to analyse data collected by several public databases. They found genes involved in DNA replication, cell division and cell death tended to be expressed at higher levels in tumours.
The researchers mapped genes in the tumour samples to identify and characterise the proteins produced by these genes. They found levels of protein production varied widely across different cancers.
By identifying expression levels for each patient, it could be possible to deliver a treatment tailored for each individual. Much past research has focused on finding mutations associated with risk of cancer.
'Oncologists and pathologists are not very impressed by prognostic genes because they are only statistical,' Professor Uhlén said to GenomeWeb. 'You can have a bad gene and survive very well, and you can have a good gene and not survive.'
Furthermore, the team found 32 genes shared across more than 80 percent of the tumours, which are potential targets for drug development. The team also found several genes essential for tumour survival.
'And those could, of course, be fantastic targets for cancer therapy,' Professor Uhlén said. 'This is one reason we are saying this could be a part of personalised medicine, because we can use next-generation sequencing of these patients, put that data into the model, and then we could say these patients should be treated with this inhibitor and not this one and so on.'
The team is now analysing genetic information on other types of cancer.
Dr Nicolas Robine of the New York Genome Center, who was not involved in the research, warned MIT Technology Review that the atlas, while useful for researchers, could not provide definitive information on patient outcomes.
The atlas is part of a Swedish program started in 2003 with the aim of mapping all of the human proteins made by the body's 20,000 or more genes.
The results were published in Science.