Apr 292008

This news story is all over the internet today. This is the Globe and Mail’s version of the story. I gotta say, I am relieved that cancer researchers have finally decided to work *together* and share their research results so maybe we could make some headway with this nasty business.

Here’s how the Globe said it:

Ten countries co-ordinate cancer fight


Globe and Mail Update

April 29, 2008 at 12:14 PM EDT

Research groups from 10 countries are announcing today an unprecedented global effort to combat cancer, one of the world’s leading killers.

The collaborative project, dubbed the International Cancer Genome Consortium, will hunt the genetic mutations that drive 50 different types of cancer – from breast to bone. The consortium, in which Canada will play a lead role, plans to share results rapidly, widely and freely so scientists can quickly develop new diagnostic tests and treatments to counter them.

Each member country plans to spend roughly $20-million (U.S.) tackling at least one subtype of the disease, collecting specimen samples from 500 patients, and studying the genetic glitches they find in their cancerous cells. With 50 cancers to be studied, not all of them have been assigned a country yet.

But China, for example, intends to study liver cancer, since the country has particularly high rates of that disease. Japan will take on gastric cancer. India has an interest in oral cancers, France in sarcomas – cancers of the bone and connective tissue. Several countries will focus on breast cancers, including Britain and the United States, where research groups are also interested in brain and colon cancers.
Internet Links

* International Cancer Genome Consortium Popup
* ICGC Goals, structure, policies and guidelines (pdf) Popup

The Globe and Mail

Canada, which is to store, crunch and share all the data collected, will take on the pancreas.

”We picked a hard one,” said Dr. Tom Hudson, scientific director of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research in Toronto, which will be the project’s home base as the ICGC Secretariat. ”There’s been research (into pancreatic cancer) but not much success. There’s just no survivor community.”

Dr. Hudson, who has helped to spearhead the consortium, noted pancreatic cancer is the 12th most common form of the disease, but one of the deadliest. More than 98 per cent of patients die within six months after diagnosis.

”In 2008, there will be 3,800 new cases and 3,700 deaths in Canada,” Dr. Hudson said. ”It’s almost always found too late.”

The consortium has come together in a whirlwind of meetings, conference calls and funding commitments during the past six months, driven by swift advances in computing technology that allow researchers to rapidly and cheaply read DNA. It is expected to amass 25,000 times more data than the international Human Genome Project, which produced the first draft sequence of human DNA in 2001.

DNA, the three-billion-chemical base-pair code that contains the operating instructions for human life, can be found in the nucleus of nearly every cell in the body. In cancer cells, however, that genetic code can be riddled with hundreds of mistakes, spawning cells that can multiply madly into deadly tumours.

”We know when you look at cancer cells, there can be thousands of mutations in that tumour cell…that were not inherited,” Dr. Hudson said. Specifically, he added, scientists are chasing the ”driver mutations” that allow a cancer to grow and spread and these are often different in different types of cancers.

Certain mutations have already proved worthwhile targets for treatment. Dr. Hudson pointed to the successful drug Gleevec as a prime example that has triggered remission in many patients. First approved to treat chronic myeloid leukemia, Gleevec works by blocking the abnormal version of a protein that a certain gene produces in the leukemia patients.

The treatment, which has since also been approved to treat a form of gastric cancer, represents a new class of drugs that selectively kill cancer cells without harming healthy ones. The lauded breast cancer drug Herceptin is another example of a therapy that selectively targets a specific molecule over-expressed in malignant cells.

There are few other examples, however, of such effective therapies, Dr. Hudson said, largely because it has been slow and expensive to find targets. He estimates that the consortium will run a 10-year effort, but ”we don’t have to wait 10 years (for a result), we will release it as we find it.”

The results will be made available to researchers worldwide and all those involved in the consortium have agreed ”not to file any patent applications or make other intellectual property claims on primary data from ICGC projects.”

The Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, with a five-year, provincially funded budget of $347-million, plans to spend $30-million on the project. At a press conference Tuesday morning, however, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said the province will also contribute an additional $10-million to fund the OICR’s role as Secretariat.

Mr. McGuinty noted that Ontario, as a sub-national government, beat out the United States and Britain to lead the ICGC, and is essentially punching above its weight.

”Cancer is devastating to families and that’s why we’re doing all we can to help save lives,” Mr. McGuinty said. ”This investment puts Ontario at the forefront of international research that will save lives around the world.”

The money has so far allowed the institute to purchase 10 ultra-fast DNA-sequencing machines and lure top talent from the United States to take on the task. Among those recruited for ICGC job to Toronto, Dr. Hudson said, are Lincoln Stein, a pathologist turned bio-informatics ”guru” from Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., and John McPherson, a Canadian scientist returning home from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston after 20 years in the United States.

Dr. Hudson said it is hoped the federally funded Genome Canada will contribute more money for the project, which would allow Canadian researchers to study other cancers, namely those of the brain and ovaries.

”We don’t want the pancreas to be the only one we do,” he said. Dr. Hudson is no stranger to science on a massive scale, having played an early role in the human genome project, and the international Hap Map, which was the first effort to chart genetic differences between four of the world’s major ethnic populations.

Duplicating efforts by studying the same cancer types in different countries is crucial, Dr. Hudson said, because ”tumours of the colon look different in Singapore than they do in Toronto.”

Researchers suspect environmental, dietary and genetic differences can impact the way cancers develop in different regions of the world.

More countries are expected to join the consortium in the coming months. The list so far includes: Australia, Canada, China, Europe, France, India, Japan, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States.

 Posted by at 7:53 pm

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