Diagnostics & Imaging Week Contributing Writer

LONDON – The research charity the Wellcome Trust is putting £8.5 million ($12.4 million) into a UK/U.S. program to carry out a systematic survey of how different cancer genes respond to 400 existing and novel chemotherapies.

The end result will be a catalogue of the best treatment, or combination of treatments, based on the specific genetic alterations seen in each cancer. The five-year project will underpin the development of personalized cancer treatments. It will be carried out at the Wellcome's genome sequencing centre, the Sanger Institute, in Cambridge and the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston.

The researchers will test the sensitivity of 1,000 cancer cell samples to chemotherapy agents, and will then correlate the responses to genes known to be driving the growth of these tumors.

Mike Hatton, who will lead the project at the Sanger Institute, said, "Our emerging understanding of cancer mutations, allied to our ability to carry out large-scale research means we can develop screening techniques to find the most effective treatments."

The project shows how knowledge of the abnormal genomes of cancer cells can be used to explore and predict responses to chemotherapeutics. In particular it will build on the work of the International Cancer Genome Consortium, set up in April 2008 with the aim of identifying the mutations that cause the 50 commonest types of cancer.

Cancer changes the genomes of cells causing disruptions within normal biological pathways and leading to uncontrolled cell growth. Because these mutations are specific to a particular type or stage of cancer, systematic mapping could be used to identify new therapies, diagnostics and preventive strategies.

The outcome of this drug profiling effort will be a description of which mutations are predictive of the response to the 400 drugs in a broad spectrum of tumors. For drugs in development this will enable the selection of patients whose cancer cells have genotypes that indicate they will respond to treatment.

Ted Bianco, director of technology transfer at Wellcome, said the project is the first step towards tailored cancer therapy. "The ultimate target is to give doctors the tools to identify the best therapy for each patient according to the genetic characteristics of their particular tumor, rather than basing these decisions solely on where the tumor has developed."

Following its formation in April, in November the International Cancer Genome Consortium reported the commitments of 11 funding organizations in eight countries to analyze genomic changes in eight forms of cancer. Each project will involve specimens from approximately 500 patients and cost $20 million. It is expected the analysis of 50 cancer gemomes will generate datasets that are 25,000 times larger than the Human Genome Project. The data will be freely available.