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WashU, St. Jude Team Launches Pediatric Cancer Sequencing Project

This article has been updated with comments from a press briefing this morning.

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Washington University in St. Louis and the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis announced today that they are embarking on a large-scale sequencing project aimed at identifying genetic and epigenetic patterns in childhood cancers.

"This is the largest and most powerful research initiative in the 50-year history of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital," the hospital's Director and CEO William Evans said during a press briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, this morning.

Researchers plan to sequence matched tumor-normal genomes from more than 600 pediatric cancer patients during the three-year, $65 million project. The effort's lead sponsor, Kay Jewelers, has committed $20 million to the sequencing study.

"This is going to be the most significant set of data that we could imagine in terms of understanding childhood cancers," National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said at the press briefing. Collins noted that the new sequencing study will complement existing projects, such as The Cancer Genome Atlas, which are aimed at understanding adult cancers.

Although the team has not determined the exact types and number of each cancer to be sequenced, Elaine Mardis, co-director of Washington University's Genome Sequencing Center told GenomeWeb Daily News that it initially intends to focus on childhood leukemia as well as childhood brain and soft tissue tumors.

"The work has already begun," Evans told reporters during the briefing, "DNA is being sequenced while we speak this morning."

Those involved hope to find clues about genetic and epigenetic changes in childhood cancers that can inform mouse model, cell culture, and targeted studies of these conditions. Because cancer is usually considered a disease of the genome, Mardis explained, researchers are keen to understand how childhood cancers differ from those in adults, whose cells have undergone far more cell divisions.

Although cure rates for childhood cancers have improved, Evans said, cancer is still the leading cause of death by disease in American children. Along with providing new insights into the mutations and regulatory changes underlying these cancers, those involved in the effort say the sequencing effort should uncover new therapeutic targets as well as information for guiding the use of existing treatments to make them more effective.

"Ultimately, we believe this project will lead to new, better, targeted therapies," Larry Shapiro, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of Washington University's School of Medicine, told reporters.

Shapiro noted that the pediatric project builds on cancer genome sequencing methods pioneered at Washington University. A Washington University-led team published the first cancer genome sequencing paper in 2008.

Samples are being provided by St. Jude, which has an extensive tissue bank of matched tumor-normal tissues and accompanying clinical data going back several decades. With the advent of faster, cheaper, and more accurate sequencing tools, Evans said, the team can now access information within this "treasure chest."

Mardis said Washington University's Genome Sequencing Center plans to sequence the samples using Illumina's new HiSeq 2000 platform in order to find SNPs, small indels, and structural variants that are involved in the cancers. Meanwhile, collaborators at St. Jude intend to do additional analyses such as RNA-sequencing and methylation studies.

Those involved in the new pediatric sequencing effort said they plan to make data from the project available to other researchers once the results have been validated.