Cancer is a hugely complicated disease, and understanding how it can be treated requires an equally enormous effort from scientists.
That effort is well underway with the Pan-Cancer Project, an international collaboration involving over 1,300 researchers globally dedicated to tackling the mammoth task of sequencing the genomes of 38 types of tumors in nearly 2,700 patients.
A key finding of the project is that cancers contain, on average, between four and five fundamental mutations that drive a cancer’s growth. These are potential weak-spots that can be exploited with treatments that attack these “driver mutations”.
Previous to the study, most of our understanding of how cancer develops came from the sets of genetic instructions for building the body’s proteins, which accounted for around one percent of the genome. Instead, the Pan-Cancer Project has finally shed light on what the other remaining 99 percent are responsible for.
One of the most optimistic outlooks from the project is that while the cancer genome is incredibly complex, it’s also finite. That means that it should be technically possible to document every genetic change that cancer can possibly induce.
That information can then be used to diagnose which type of tumor a patient has and personalize a treatment plan based on the unique genome of their cancer.