Healthy living

UK scientists crack cancer codes

DNA Skin and lung cancer mutations revealed

In a world first, UK scientists have deciphered the entire genetic codes from two of the world's deadliest cancers.

All cancers are caused by mutations in a cell's genetic material, or DNA, which are acquired during a person's lifetime. Identifying these mutations, what causes them and how they drive a cell to become cancerous are key to developing new screening tests and treatments.

In two separate studies, teams of scientists from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute isolated the DNA from cells taken from lung cancer and melanoma tumours.

Unlike others, both cancers have known triggers - cigarette smoke for lung cancer and ultraviolet radiation either from a sunbed or sunlight for melanoma.

By using sophisticated DNA sequencing techniques, the scientists decoded the entire DNA from the cancerous tumour tissues and compared it with DNA taken from normal healthy tissue.

DNA from the lung cancer tissue was found to contain more than 23,000 mutations compared with normal healthy DNA and the melanoma tissue contained more than 33,000 mutations.

"We can see the desperate attempts of our genome (genetic material) to defend itself against the damage wreaked by the chemicals in cigarette smoke or the damage from ultraviolet radiation.

"Our cells fight back furiously to repair the damage, but frequently lose that fight," said Professor Mike Stratton from the Cancer Genome Project at the Institute.

The scientists also said the number of mutations found in lung cancer suggest that a typical smoker would build up 15 mutations for every cigarette smoked.

The next step for the scientists is to work out which mutations are most important in controlling the cancerous cells.

However, mapping the entire genetic material from both cancers paves the way for future cacner treatments.

"By identifying all the cancer genes we will be able to develop new drugs that target the specific mutated genes and work out which patients will benefit from these novel treatments, said Dr. Peter Campbell from the Wellcome Trust which funded the research.

Both studies are published today in the journal Nature.

This article was published on Thu 17 December 2009

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