Grant supports sequencing of cancer genes to improve diagnosis and treatment.

The Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has been awarded a $156 million, four-year grant to use DNA sequencing to unlock the secrets of cancer and other human diseases.

The grant is one of only three given by the NHGRI to U.S. sequencing centers. The funds also will be used to improve scientists’ understanding of the human genome and to sequence the genomes of non-human primates and microbes.

“The Human Genome Project gave us the blueprint of the human genome, and now we’re ready to comb that genome to find genetic changes that underlie the development of cancer and sustain its growth,” says Richard Wilson, Ph.D., director of Washington University’s Genome Sequencing Center. “We strongly believe that a genome-wide understanding of cancer will ultimately lead to the development of new diagnostic tests and more effective treatments.”

Genetic errors, or mutations, are known to accumulate in normal cells, ushering in a transformation that can eventually lead to cancer. An estimated 300 genes involved in cancer are already known, and a more in-depth search could identify numerous others that determine, among other things, how aggressive a particular tumor is or which drugs might work best to treat it.

The cancer gene sequencing effort is part of The Cancer Genome Atlas, a joint pilot project of the NHGRI and the National Cancer Institute that will initially focus on identifying small changes, like duplications or deletions of genetic material, in three types of cancer: ovarian, lung, and glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor.

The new research involves sequencing a patient’s tumor DNA and comparing it to a normal DNA sample from the same patient to identify changes that may be important to cancer.

“We think that cancer at the level of the genome, while complex, can be characterized,” says Elaine Mardis, Ph.D., co-director of the Genome Sequencing Center. “Our funding will be directed at a genome-wide understanding of cancer-specific mutations that, for the first time, will enable us to discover and catalogue this information as a first step to finding cancer cures.”

The researchers will also sequence the genes involved in other diseases and the entire X chromosome, to identify genes involved in X-linked diseases, such as hemophilia and Fragile X.

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