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Genomics and Cancer

The American Association for Cancer Research's annual meeting kicked off in Chicago this week. At the meeting's opening plenary session, Washington University in St. Louis' Elaine Mardis discussed the emerging landscape of the tumor genome, and said that since Janet Rowley started working on cancer's genomic origins in the 1970s, it has become increasingly clear that genomics has a lot to contribute to our understanding of cancer. In particular, Mardis said, the advent of next-generation sequencing has enabled the efficient study of cancer genomics, and improvements in sequencing technology in the next year should allow for even faster sequencing of whole tumor genomes. Mardis also said that the Human Reference Genome is a keystone for analysis of the cancer genome, as it helps researchers identify somatic variations, and that RNA sequencing of normal genomes now allows for the identification of gene expression changes and gene fusions in cancer genomes when the two are compared. "Use of these technologies allows for a complete picture of somatic variations of all types," Mardis said. "Next-generation sequencing and computational analysis are giving us a refined view of the tumor genome landscape" and allowing researchers to understand tumor evolution.

The Novartis Institute for BioMedical Research's William Sellers later added that work from labs like Mardis' show that it's important to know the genetic origin of a cancer before attempting to develop a treatment for it. However, he added, it's becoming quite clear that not all oncogenes are druggable, and that "one drug is never enough" to treat cancer. While finding the right combinations of drugs to treat different types and subtypes of cancer is a "daunting" challenge for researchers, Sellers said, combination treatments are the best bet for patients.

For more in-depth coverage of the AACR 2012 annual meeting, check out our sister publication Cancer Minute.