Modern genomics and biotechnology have blown open doors for research on many diseases once considered a guaranteed death sentence for those who were diagnosed with them. Years ago, the only treatments for a cancerous tumor growth may have been to blast it with radiation and/or chemotherapy, or else remove the tumors and vulnerable tissue surgically. However, with fresh insights gained from sequencing the mutated genomes of cancer cells, new treatment opportunities may soon be on the horizon.
Exploring every angle
Through tumor cell sequencing, researchers can now determine what specific mutations might be responsible for the cell’s uninhibited growth, what kinds of mutations might express proteins that make it more susceptible to immune response, and what might make some tumors more virulent than others. For example, analysis of a tumor cell’s somatic mutations can potentially give physicians a better idea of whether or not treatments such as immunotherapies will be effective for a given patient. This may one day save a patient from the undesirable side effects that could accompany a potentially ineffective treatment. On the immunotherapy side, researchers at the University of Tokyo are exploring ways to identify the neoantigens expressed by the tumor cells and create personalized cancer “vaccines”. These “vaccines” leverage the patient’s own immune system to fight the tumor using genome sequencing to identify differences between healthy and damaged genes.
In a stranger line of research, a mutated, invasive crayfish species might help researchers get a glimpse into the machinations behind cancer’s unnatural growth. An allegedly aquarium-bred species called the marble crayfish, the only known crustacean that breeds asexually, escaped captivity and began destroying ecosystems in Africa and Europe. It is this species’ ability to reproduce asexually, and its similar number of genes as a human, that has researchers drawing parallels to the way cancer mutates and grows without regard for its environment. Sequencing the crayfish’s genome and studying it could help researchers get a more macro look at how ordinary, healthy cells turn cancerous and begin cloning themselves uncontrollably.
The ability to sequence cancer genes represents a significant leap in the journey to rendering cancer a thing of the past. Traditionally, cancers are broadly defined by the part of the body they arise in (ie. brain cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, etc), but the specific pathology of each one can differ greatly depending on the type of cell affected and how it propagates. It is for this reason that cancers can benefit greatly from research on a genetic level since the genetic signatures of each unique cancer can be identified and could allow oncologists to target weaknesses in the tumor on a case-by-case basis. Utilizing genome sequencing this way, researchers and physicians gain a more powerful tool both in the taxonomy of cancers and in the very specific ways each one can be fought most effectively.
For example, researchers in Singapore recently discovered that the mutations in Asian patients with lung cancers are more widely varied than the tumors often found in Caucasian patients suffering from the same “lung cancer” diagnosis. Unexpected discoveries, such as ethnicity-dependent risk factors, in conjunction with targeted treatment for a patient’s unique tumor profile, has the potential to revolutionize how cancer is defined and fought.
How can we help?
The Sequencing Center offers several different panels targeting genes, mutations, and SNPs commonly associated with cancerous growth, and can even build custom gene panels tailored to your individual needs. Contact us to find out more about how we can help with research efforts into cancer and let’s find a way to bring about an end to these diseases once and for all.