The International Cancer Genome Consortium is expanding its research in China, where new projects seeking genomic factors in four cancer types common to the world’s most populous nation will be launched.

The projects—focusing on colorectal, esophageal, liver, and nasopharyngeal cancers—join the consortium’s two-year-old and still-ongoing Chinese project focused on gastric cancer, which this week is making public new data from sequenced tumors.

The new projects are expected to take less time than the typical four years, since the consortium began collecting tissue samples from patients with the diseases over the past two years.

“Each of those projects have 500 tumors, so that’s another 2,000 cancer genomes which are being committed. That’s significant,” Tom Hudson, M.D., a founder of the ICGC and the president and scientific director of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, told GEN. “Each of these projects has started a combination of whole genomes and exomes, so they actually have preliminary data that has been accumulated. But the large-scale resequencing of the tumors is actually going to be happening mostly in 2013.”

Expansion of the cancers studied in China became possible after Chinese agencies stepped up funding to the consortium, Dr. Hughes said. The amount of additional Chinese funding was not available at deadline.

The expansion also gives China the second largest number of ICGC projects—five, the same number as the UK. The U.S. has the largest number, with 20.

Cancer is China’s leading cause of death, with 1.9 million Chinese dying of the disease annually, and about 2.7 million Chinese diagnosed with some form of cancer. Studies and news reports have blamed China’s cancer spike on factors ranging from smoking to rapid industrialization.

Chinese authorities were concerned enough about cancer incidence to order a roughly 17% reduction in the price of cancer drugs as of Oct. 8.

“High-level correlations”

“Although ICGC is about identifying a repertoire of cancer mutations and tumors across the world, we’re also able to make high-level correlations between exposure data that is made available and the mutations. We see, depending on different exposures—tobacco, UV light, viruses, and so on—that you end up with different cancer mutation profiles. These things might end up being important in later strategies,” Dr. Hudson said.

It’s too early to say, he added, whether data from China will be augmented by data from Chinese living outside China, or from other Asians. “As people migrate to other countries, and their risk factors—their exposures—also change, I expect that we’re going to also see differences in genetic profile. These are things we couldn’t answer before, but I think we’ll be able to answer in the future.”

Investigators for the four new ICGC cancer projects will be scattered across the Chinese Cancer Genome Consortium’s 19 hospitals and institutes in 12 cities, including Beijing, Shanghai Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong, with sequencing to be carried out by Chinese consortium member BGI Shenzhen.

ICGC was established to map the genomes of common and rare forms of cancer with the goal of identifying cancerous mutations in more than 25,000 tumors representing more than 50 types of cancer worldwide. To date, ICGC has made public data on 7,358 tumors at its website, Dr. Hudson said.

ICGC has received funding commitments for 51 project teams in 14 nations and the European Union to study more than 25,000 tumor genomes.

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