World Science Festival 2011: Shifting the balance in the war on cancer
"Winning" the war on cancer might be impossible, but for the panelists at "Cancer's Last Stand? The Genome Solution" hosted by the World Science Festival Thursday night at the New York University Kimmel Center, cancer genomics could represent a radical shift in the balance of power between researchers and a disease that claims some 7 million lives annually.
Cancer genomics, the study of the human cancer genome, is, according to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Health, "a search within 'cancer families' and patients for the full collection of genes and mutations - both inherited and sporadic - that contribute to the development of a cancer cell and its progression from a localized cancer to one that grows uncontrolled and metastasizes (spreads throughout the body)."
Modeled after the Human Genome Project, the 15-year long process to sequence all 3 billion base pairs in the human genome (a virtual blueprint for a human being) that ended in 2003, the Cancer Genome Atlas is a collective database as scientists and academics attempt to sequence the entire array of genetic mutations that cause every known type of cancer.
According to Eric Lander, one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project, the number of cancerous genetic mutations is finite because the number of base pairs in the human genome is finite. "The key is finding the Achilles' heels for the mutations in these pathways."
Also important to understand, explained cancer physician and 2010 PopTech speaker Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pultizer Prize-winning author of the cancer biography The Emperor of All Maladies, is that sequencing the cancer genome is just the beginning of the an incredibly complex process. "We know cancer is vulnerable," he said. "But to exploit that vulnerability, we have to find the right chemical trigger that turns off the cancer gene but leaves everything else alone."
Renowned cancer researcher and panelist Mary-Claire King, the first scientist to prove that breast cancer is inherited in some families as a result of mutations in the gene she named BRCA1, said that the most radical thing that has happened in the history of cancer research is the acceptance that cancer is genetic.
"As a young woman working in my own lab in the 1970s, there were no expectations," she said to a round of laughter from the audience. "But I went to [renowned cancer surgeon] Bernie Fisher and I said that if we look at generations, we can find mutations within certain families. And the oncologists got it - they understood. And that kind of alliance between scientists and physicians is huge."
Dr. Olufunmilayo Olopade, Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor and Associate Dean for Global Health at the University of Chicago Medical Center, echoed King's sentiments. The importance of collaboration and cross-training between scientists and caregivers is essential to managing cancer care in the future. "We have to understand not only how the drug affects the genome, but also how the drug affects the human being," she said.
The future of cancer research and the promise of cancer genomics is exciting, but there can be no mistake about how long this will take, Lander said. "This is for our kids and grandkids. We have to be totally straight up with people about the return on this investment. It's a long march but a great goal. We have to stay the course, and convince Congress that funding this research is for our kids."
Image: World Science Festival
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