CHAPEL HILL — Researchers studying the genetic characteristics of more than 800 breast cancer tumors have found the genetic causes of some of the most common types.
The findings are a crucial step toward creating therapies customized to specific patients – so-called “personalized medicine.” That’s something many medical experts believe will eventually play a major role in cancer treatment.
The multi-institute research team included several scientists at UNC-Chapel Hill, where significant parts of the work were performed.
The findings were published Sunday afternoon in the online edition of the journal Nature.
The study is part of the Cancer Genome Atlas, a $275 million initiative of the National Institutes of Health aimed at mapping the genetics of at least 20 major kinds of cancer.
The researchers used half a dozen sophisticated methods, including sequencing the genetic information contained in cancer cells.
They examined tumors from 825 patients, probing the genetics of tumors of the four main subtypes of breast cancer, and analyzed the combined results of from all the various approaches.
Charles Perou, a distinguished professor of molecular oncology at UNC-Chapel Hill and a member of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, said the result was the most comprehensive blueprint of breast cancer diversity to date.
The cancer center was an original member of the atlas project and will receive more than $20 million in grants from the project to fund research.
For some tumors, the findings suggest that genetic weaknesses could become targets for therapy.
“Now we can see a patient who has a certain tumor type and we can look for a specific mutation that could be treatable with a specific medicine,” said Perou, who was a corresponding author of the paper.
In at least one case, a potential medicine is already undergoing clinical trials, he said.
Among the findings was that one subtype of breast cancer is genetically similar to a form of ovarian cancer, suggesting they may share the same genetic cause, and therefore may respond to similar therapies.
Indeed, some of the recent research has led scientists to begin thinking of cancer more as a disease defined by its genetic abnormalities than by the organ or other location in the body where it occurs.
Links have been found between some colon and skin cancers, and others between certain colon and breast cancers.
The atlas project was started about three years ago. It includes more than 150 researchers and more than two dozen institutions nationwide and in Canada.
It was made possible by recent advances in the technology required to map genetic material.
The breast cancer study is just the latest in several important findings that have come in rapid succession from the project. Earlier this month, the researchers announced similar findings about a major type of lung cancer, and in July, they published a study of the genetics of colorectal cancer.
The findings for the various cancers pave the way to extensive research into potential therapies.
In fact, Perou said, several clinical trials based on the work already are being designed.
Also, the study results can be used to re-examine some older research with relative ease because it radically narrows the amount of genetic material that must be studied in a given form of tumor.
The various recent findings have been called transformative by cancer experts, but they just scratch the surface of what the project is likely to find, Perou said.