DENVER (GenomeWeb News) – Cancer research and genomics are intimately linked, Broad Institute Founding Director and Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research member Eric Lander told researchers at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting in Denver this weekend.
Speaking at the opening AACR plenary session yesterday, Lander, who was recently named co-chair of the US President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, explained that an article on cancer research by Renato Dulbecco in 1986 was the driving force behind sequencing the human genome.
Now, he said, cancer genomics is "undergoing just a tremendous acceleration." And to help researchers involved in cancer and other genomics research assess large integrated datasets, Lander announced that the Broad Institute is providing a free online browser called the Integrated Genomics Viewer.
The human genome project not only expanded researchers' catalogue of Mendelian disease genes, Lander explained, but also provided a substrate for understanding complex, multi-gene diseases such as cancer.
As he walked attendees through genomics advances that have made detailed cancer genome studies a reality — from the advent of the common disease-common variant hypothesis in the mid-1990s to the rapid growth of microarrays and other tools a decade or so later to re-sequencing and integrated research projects — Lander highlighted the advantages that systematic research offers over candidate gene studies.
"We're bad guessers," he said, "but we're very good when we're systematic."
Lander noted that numerous genotyping studies, along with collaborative projects such as the SNP Consortium and International HapMap project, have led to the identification of millions of SNPs and more than 400 loci associated with complex disease — including many variants in genes that were not prior disease candidates.
Genomics studies have also revealed unexpected connections between different diseases, such as overlapping genetic variability between type 2 diabetes and some cancers, he added. Lander said the data obtained so far suggests the basic approach behind genome-wide association studies — and other systematic projects — really does work.
Even so, he noted, genetic architecture is complex. Many loci have modest effects, and the search for additional common and rare alleles conferring disease risk is ongoing. "It looks like there's still lots to learn from systematic methods," Lander said.
And despite the efforts made so far, Lander added, there are still important issues remaining in genomics — from study design to the debate over the usefulness of caner genome and other studies. On the one hand, he explained, some people argue that most cancer genes have already been identified. On the other hand are those who say cancer genetics are too complex to ever be fully elucidated.
For his part, Lander emphasized the value of cancer genomics. He also said that researchers need to try to get as much information from as many samples as possible. By integrating data across many samples, he said, scientists can distinguish between background variation and genetic changes that contribute to cancer.
Cancer research, in particular, remains at the forefront of genomics, Lander said, pointing to large-scale efforts such as The Cancer Genome Atlas and International Cancer Genome Consortium as well as cancer-related projects taking place at the Broad and many other research centers and universities.
As for the future of cancer genomics? "Who knows," Lander said. But while he shied away from making concrete predictions about the field's future, he hopes to see complete cancer genome analysis become routine in the research community within five years and the standard of care for cancer treatment and therapy within a decade.
Lander said he'd also like to see cancer patients participating in research and contributing cancer genome and clinical outcome data to common databases. While he's aware of complications with such an approach, including HIPAA and informatics challenges, Lander said he believes that involving cancer patients in a coalition to fight cancer could propel knowledge and improve therapy.
Although he conceded that completely unraveling the cancer genome would not provide instant answers about cancer's causes and cures, Lander said such work provides fodder for discussion and a firm foundation for future research.