Genetic mapping of cancer cells raises hope of improved treatment

Researchers say better understanding of how cancers start and evolve can help improve efficiency of targeted treatment of cancers

By Kundan Pandey
Published: Thursday 21 November 2013


A recent technique developed by scientists to map mutations in cancer cells could help develop better treatment for the life-threatening disease. The technique can identify the founding mutations from which a tumour evolved and then uses a computer software to map the cancer profile of a patient by drawing the cancer's family tree. This will make it possible for doctors to use targeted treatment of cancers more effectively.

For the study, scientists associated with The Institute of Cancer Research, London and Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, used DNA sequencing to identify a panel of mutations present across thousands of cancer cells in three patients with leukaemia. Subsequently, they tested many individual cancer cells for each and every mutation to find out their genetic fingerprint and place them into the cancer’s family tree.

The scientists who published their research in the journal Genome Research say that “tumours grow through a process of Darwinian evolution”, wherein cancer cells develop an advantageous mutation that allows them to survive and multiply, producing a population of cells that can mutate further.

The software was used to assign the cancer cell with the fewest mutations as the ancestral clone and places it at the root of the evolution cancer's family tree, with the other clones arranged as branches above it.

Targeted cancer treatments are designed to attack molecules produced by mutations. Under the present treatment regime, it is the the branches of this cancer tree that usually get targeted. This might slow down mutation for some time but does not root out cancer.  Patients may also develop resistance to treatment. But if the targeted treatment is directed towards the ancestral clone at the root of the family tree, then a patient's chances of survival could be greatly enhanced.

One of the researchers, Mel Greaves, professor of Cell Biology at The Institute of Cancer Research, said: “The diversity of these evolutionary tree structures helps explain why advanced cancer can be so resilient to treatment.”

About the finding, Chris Bunce, research director at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, said: “This study significantly advances our understanding of how cancers start and evolve. The methods developed could be used in leukaemia and other cancers to predict how an individual's disease will progress and it can guide the personalised choice of treatment to target cancer at its root and monitor the risk of it coming back.”

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