NIH Launches Cancer Genome Project

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Federal health officials yesterday launched the biggest genetic research endeavor since the landmark human genome project: an ambitious effort to categorize all of the hundreds of molecular glitches that turn normal healthy cells into cancers.

The Cancer Genome Atlas, whose total cost could reach $1 billion or more, will for the first time direct the full force of today's sophisticated genetic technologies to the thorough understanding of a single disease -- one that will eventually strike nearly half of all Americans alive.

Leaders of the National Institutes of Health, which will administer the project through grants and contracts, predicted it would revolutionize the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of cancer, which will kill 564,000 Americans this year.

"This is really the beginning of a new era," NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni said at a news conference in Washington, flanked by researchers, doctors and patient advocates.

Although the lofty rhetoric echoed that of Richard Nixon's now-disparaged call for a war on cancer almost 35 years ago, Zerhouni and others emphasized that scientists have learned crucial lessons totally unknown at that time. Most centrally, it is now known that cancer is a genetic disease, caused by errors in a cell's DNA that can be identified and targeted with molecular medicines.

By identifying the full spectrum of genetic errors that allow cancer cells to divide recklessly, spread and take root throughout the body, doctors hope to be able to classify every cancer -- not by today's crude measures of where it forms and how fast it is growing, but according to hidden molecular hallmarks that can tell which drugs will work and which ones will not.

"The planets have aligned to tackle cancer in a comprehensive way that we've never had the tools to do before," said Francis S. Collins, director of the NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute. That institute and the National Cancer Institute will provide $100 million for a three-year pilot project to test the project's feasibility.

A genetic map of everything that makes a cancer cell cancerous could speed the development of drugs that specifically target tumor cells' Achilles' heel. It could also lead to molecular imaging tools able to detect tumors when they are young, and provide clues about how to prevent them in the first place.

"The future will look no more like the past than a butterfly resembles a caterpillar," said NCI Director Andrew von Eschenbach, adding that he sees cancer devolving soon from a killer to a "chronic, manageable condition."

The Cancer Genome Atlas is the outgrowth of a year and a half of planning by NIH advisory groups. It would build on the emerging recognition that cancer is a collection of diseases that have rampant overgrowth in common but disparate genetic roots.

Some cancers are caused by a mutation in a single gene that normally keeps a cell from making offspring. Others are caused by the mistaken duplication of a gene that promotes normal cell division, boosting its reproductive capacity to abnormal levels.

In other cases, entire pieces of chromosomes -- long, gene-bearing strands of DNA inside cells -- break off and reattach to other chromosomes, inducing spurious and unregulated growth signals.

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