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Launching Cancer Genome Pilot Project, NCI and NHGRI Promise That $100M Cost Will Not Affect Grants

NEW YORK, Dec. 13 (GenomeWeb News) - As expected, the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute today formaly launched their $100 million pilot to explore the molecular basis of cancer.


Claiming the "biotechical planets were aligned" for this kind of collaboration, the project will develop and test the science and technology framework to systematically identify and characterize the genetic mutations and other genomic changes associated with cancer, NHGRI director Francis Collins said during a press conference in Washington, DC, this morning.


Called The Cancer Genome Atlas Pilot Project, the three-year pilot program will use genome analysis technologies such as large-scale genome sequencing.


The acronym TCGA, whose initials comprise the first letter in each of the four nucleotides, was intentional, NHGRI said.


NCI and NHGRI have each committed $50 million over three years to the TCGA Pilot Project. The pilot is being funded by money that the agencies already have in their budgets and will not reduce amounts available to individual grants, Collins said during a question-answer session. Funding investigations by independent researchers remains "our number one priority," he said.


The pilot will focus on a few types of cancer and tumors, which have yet to be chosen.  NCI deputy director Anna Barker said the tumors would be selected after evaluating existing repositories to identify those that exist in enough large quantities and are "reasonably" homogenous, with little contamination. The ideal tumor sample will come from patients on a protocol, she said.


A Human Cancer Biospecimen Core Resource will help collect, process, and distribute cancerous and control tissue samples to Cancer Genome Characterization Centers and Genome Sequencing Centers, she said. These centers will be selected in 2006.


The centers will use high-throughput methods to sequence the genes and other genomic targets to identify genetic mutations in the DNA code that are associated with a cancer type and to identify other types of genomic changes, such as copy number changes and/or chromosomal translocations.


As previosuly reported by GenomeWeb News, the research community has expressed concerns over the ability of the project to meet its ambitious goals. One of the concerns involved the high cost of sequencing.


To address these concerns, Barker and Collins emphasized that TCGA was the "next natural scientific step" after mapping the human genome in 2003 and creating the HapMap this year. The project will also focus on developing the technologies to advance the science of cancer genetics, such as improving current genomic analysis technologies and emphasizing epigenomics, said Barker.


Each component of the pilot project will have clear milestones and goals. The success of the pilot will determine whether the project will be expanded to explore genomic changes involved in all 200 types of cancer to develop a complete atlas of the cancer genome, said Collins.


Collins said he had "no idea" what the total cost of a full-scale project would be.


TCGA data will be available via public databases.

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