US Cancer Genome Atlas pilot launched

4 January 2006

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has launched the pilot phase of an ambitious human cancer genome project. The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) will begin with a feasibility study on the intention to systematically catalogue the genetic changes associated with all forms of human cancers. Genomic changes are known to underlie cancer by disrupting normal mechanisms of controlled cellular growth and development; it is hoped that by cataloguing these changes it will be possible to develop novel therapeutic and diagnostic tools for cancer. The initial phase of the project will concentrate on a few selected types of cancer in order to develop and evaluate systems to identify and characterise mutations and other genetic alterations. It will also seek to develop new technologies, for example for the analysis of epigenetic changes such as methylation.

A Human Cancer Biospecimen Core Resource will process and distribute of cancerous and control tissue samples to centres for genome characterization and sequencing, looking for mutations and larger-scale genomic changes such as copy number changes and/or chromosomal translocations, that are known to contribute to cancer development. These centres will be chosen in 2006. TCGA data will be made publicly available to the international research community.

NIH Director Elias Zerhouni said: "This atlas of genomic changes will provide new insights into the biological basis of cancer, which in turn will lead to new tests to detect cancer in its early, most treatable stages; new therapies to target cancer at its most vulnerable points; and, ultimately, new strategies to prevent cancer" (see press release). NHGRI Director Francis S. Collins commented: "Given the genetic complexity of cancer, we are certain to face many daunting challenges in this pilot. But by pulling together some of the best minds in the cancer and genomics research communities, I am confident that the pilot will succeed, and we will go on to develop an atlas that will accelerate cancer research in ways we cannot even imagine today".

Funding for the project ($100 million over three years) will be provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). Project supporters have cited the success of the UK Cancer Genome Project run by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute as an exemplar of the potential benefits of such initiatives, but others think that the project may cost too much for limited benefits, and say that the money would be better spent on basic cancer research (see Check E (2005) Nature 438, 894).

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