What is Cancer Genomics?




To understand what the term Cancer Genomics actually means first requires you to understand what Genomics are. To put it as simply as possible, genomics refers to a discipline in genetics that uses DNA sequencing, recombinant DNA and bioinformatics to analyze, sequence and assemble the function and structure of genomes. Genomes are a “complete set of DNA within a single cell of an organism”.

People in this field are busy with genetic mapping of the human body, looking at interactions within the genome and complex interactions between genomes. They examine concepts like heterosis (which deals with breeding), epistasis (“modifier” genes) and pleiotropy (when one gene affects several seemingly unrelated traits). To put it in simple terms they are trying to understand how genes interact, how genomes function and what specific genes control within the human body.

Cancer Genomics (Oncogenomics)

Cancer Genomics is a new sub-field of genomics that applies cutting edge technology to look into genes associated with cancer. The term “Cancer Genomics” means the same thing as “Oncogenomics”. Researchers in this field have found that cancer is a genetic disease caused by accumulations of mutations in the DNA. That mutation leads to cancer cells proliferating and spreading throughout the body.

Cancer Genomics largely seeks to find genes that can allow cancer to proliferate, called oncogenes, and to find treatments that suppress those genes. It also seeks to find the genes that are capable of suppressing tumors and harness their ability. Cancer genomics research aims to find new forms of diagnosis, treatments and cancer prediction technologies from the understand of those types of genes.

In tumor cells, the oncogenes are mutated and expressed at high levels. While normal cells undergo a scheduled death within the body, activated oncogenes cause those cells to survive and proliferate. Cancer can be established within the body by gene mutations or environmental factors and then the oncogenes play a crucial role in spreading that infection.

Since research in the area began, dozens of oncogenes have been identified as playing a role in proliferating cancer within the human body. Some cancer drugs that have already been released actually target the proteins encoded by oncogenes. Some of the drugs that have been released in recent years such as Gleevec, Herceptin and Avastin have been developed with the help of insights from the field Cancer Genomics.

There are a number of research organisations like the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute who are exploring the human genome in depth to find new forms of diagnosis and treatments for cancer.

The main target for the institute:

The Cancer Genome Project is using the human genome sequence and high-throughput mutation detection techniques to identify somatically acquired sequence variants/mutations and hence identify genes critical to the development of human cancers. This initiative will ultimately provide the paradigm for the detection of germline mutations in non-neoplastic human genetic diseases through genome-wide mutation detection approaches.

There are now many databases available for cancer researchers who collect and share data on the role of specific genes in cancer. The Cancer Genome Project is only one of those organisations and seeks to map out all the somatic intragenic mutations in cancer. They look at genes, mutations and tumors to gain an understanding of how the interactions are playing out.

Another project is the Cancer Genome Anatomy Project which has collated a great of information on the cancer genome, transcriptome, and proteome. The Progenetix database is another oncogenomic reference database, collecting cytogenetic and molecular-cytogenetic tumor data. This data will eventually be used to identify which form of mutation a patient may have, how their genes are interacting and how to fight the cancer.

Personalized Cancer Treatment

In addition to looking at the underlying genetic causes of cancer, oncogenomics also looks into the development of personaliazed cancer treatments. Because cancer develops due to a series of mutations in the DNA, different kinds of mutations exist for different people. Two people with the same form of cancer will have different DNA mutations because their genetic makeup is different.

Researchers realized that identifying those specific gene mutations and targeting them will lead to more efficient forms of cancer treatment. Because the human genome project has been complete and sequencing technologies have advanced, it has allowed doctors in this field to dig deeper into the relationships between genes, oncogenes and cancer.

With the large amount of research currently being carried out on cancer genomes, and the completion of the genome database it has been predicted that these cancer-causing mutations, rearrangements, will be cataloged and characterized within the next decade. At that point doctors will be able to understand how your cancer is propagating at a genetic level.

That makes a for a very exciting time within the cancer community and the hope that someday soon, these advanced treatments will lead to a cure for cancer.

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