Genome Study Reveals Secrets at the Root of Cancer

The best angle for cancer care may still be prevention through healthy lifestyle moderation but we continue to get closer to a cure.  The latest research, for example, reminds that the earliest signs of cancer can appear years—even several decades—before the condition is diagnosed. Of course, you just have to look for the appropriate genetic mutations that cause otherwise healthy cells to turn malignant. 

A new study out of the Francis Crick Institute, in London, analyzed samples collected from more than 2,500 tumors compared across 38 types of cancer. The results reveal a much larger-than-expected window of treatment opportunity to test and, hopefully, cure/prevent cancer at its earliest stages. Of course, this is currently the most comprehensive cancer genetics study to date. 

Study co-author Clemency Jolly explains, “What’s extraordinary is how some of the genetic changes appear to have occurred many years before diagnosis, long before any other signs that a cancer may develop, and perhaps even in apparently normal tissue,” said Clemency Jolly, a co-author of the research based at the Francis Crick Institute in London.

Discovering that the roots of cancer begin many more years before symptoms arise are not necessarily going to change cancer screenings as we know them today, but it could help develop new ways to achieve early diagnosis in the future. 

Study co-author Peter Van Loo, describes, “Unlocking these patterns means it should now be possible to develop new diagnostic tests that pick up signs of cancer much earlier,” said Peter Van Loo, co-lead author, also of the Crick Institute. “There is a window of opportunity.”

For example, the study revealed that approximately half of the earliest mutations that lead to cancer occur in only nine genes. That means the pool of common genes serving to trigger their divergence is relatively small. As such, future treatment could involved hunting down these specific mutations, etc. 

Van Loo goes on to say, “One could try and identify these [early mutations] and do some kind of very sensitive imaging on patients that were positive,” said Van Loo. “Or even further into the future, one could conceive of methods that really targeted these cells and made them light up in an imaging approach or just kill them in one go. That’s a bit science fiction at the moment.”