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NIH completes Pan-Cancer Atlas based on massive genomic analysis

Resource to help researchers understand how, where and why tumors arise in humans, says Francis Collins, MD.

National Institutes of Health-funded researchers have developed an atlas that provides the scientific community with a comprehensive, in-depth and interconnected understanding of how, where and why tumors arise in humans.

The Pan-Cancer Atlas is based on a detailed genomic analysis of molecular and clinical data from more than 11,000 tumors, representing 33 different cancer types. NIH officials contend that the database will serve as an essential resource for precision medicine, enabling physicians to select treatments that are most likely to help patients based on a genetic understanding of their disease.

Also See: Online resource gives researchers easy access to gene data

“This project is the culmination of more than a decade of groundbreaking work,” said Francis Collins, MD, director of NIH. “This analysis provides cancer researchers with unprecedented understanding of how, where and why tumors arise in humans, enabling better informed clinical trials and future treatments.”

According to NIH, the project focused not only on cancer genome sequencing but also on different types of data analyses, such as investigating gene and protein expression profiles, and associating them with clinical and imaging data.

The data are currently available through a portal as a collection of 27 published papers that form the Pan-Cancer Atlas. The papers are divided into three main categories—cell-of-origin patterns, oncogenic processes and signaling pathways—with each category anchored by a flagship paper that summarizes the core findings for the topic as well as companion papers that explore individual sub-topics within these categories.

“The Pan-Cancer Atlas reclassifies human tumor types based on molecular similarity, indicating that the cell of origin influences but does not fully determine tumor classification, which informs future clinical trial design and interpretation,” states the portal. “Companion work reveals new insights into subgroupings of cancers, including gynecologic and breast, gastrointestinal, squamous, and renal cancers, and reveals stem-cell-like features associated with oncogenic dedifferentiation.”

The work is the result of a $300 million collaboration initiated and supported by NIH’s National Cancer Institute and National Human Genome Research Institute—called The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA)—which involved upwards of 150 researchers at more than two dozen North American institutions.

“TCGA was the first project of its scale to characterize—at the molecular level—cancer across a breadth of cancer types,” said Carolyn Hutter, director of NHGRI’s Division of Genome Sciences and the NHGRI team lead for TCGA. “At the project’s infancy 10 years ago, it wasn’t even possible, much less on such a scale, to do the types of characterization and analysis that were being proposed. It was a hugely ambitious project.”

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