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New understanding on how cancer starts

November 2017

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Cancer news is coming in fast now as so many long-term research projects come to fruition.

The latest news is from researchers at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute  who say for the first time ever, scientists have manage to work out the number of mutations needed for cancers to develop.

This is a vital aspect of fully understanding cancer and of course ways to stop it developing. Over 150 years ago Charles Darwin published his findings on natural selection, and cancers also develop by natural selection. They act on mutations that accumulate in our body cells over time.

This study involved applying evolutionary aspects to find out about natural selection in 7,664 tumours involved in 29 different cancers.
The question of how many mutations needed to turn a normal cell into a cancer cell has been debated for decades. The research now shows that on average only one to ten mutations are needed for cancer to emerge. The results brought up a lot of additional details including a large variation in the number of mutations required for different cancers. For instance, only around four mutations per patient on average are needed to drive liver cancers; while colorectal cancers need around ten. Just one mutation is needed to drive thyroid and testicular cancers.

One of the more interesting findings from the research was that mutations are generally well tolerated by cells in the body. This is in contrast to mutations we inherit from our parents which are usually poorly tolerated and lost over time. 

From the research, the team also identified the main cancer genes responsible for 29 specific different types of cancer.

It is of course a level of research and science that is difficult for most of us to fully understand, but without doubt this research offers great progress in the full understanding and the subsequent treatment of cancer.

First author of the research, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute’s  Dr Inigo Martincorena, said:
“In the study, we revealed that around half of the key mutations driving cancer occur in genes that are not yet identified as cancer genes. There is already much insight into the most important genes involved in cancer; but there are many more genes yet to be discovered.”

The team also acknowledge that new methods emerging from this study can help towards a pathway for personalised cancer care. In the future, similar techniques could be used in clinics to identify the specific mutations responsible for a patient’s cancer.  It could all lead to more targeted therapies to treat the disease.

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is a world leader in genome research. You can find out more about the Institute at:
www.sanger.ac.uk


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