Mass cancer mapping centre opens

Lung cancer cells

The devastating changes that turn healthy tissue into cancer are to be investigated in the biggest centre of its kind in the NHS.

The laboratories at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) will use information in tumour DNA to help find the best "personalised" treatments.

Its director said this was not science fiction and would be day-to-day practice in the NHS within a decade.

The centre will also investigate how cancers become resistant to drugs.

The field of cancer research is moving rapidly away from defining a cancer by where it is in the body - one type of breast cancer can have more in common with an ovarian cancer than another cancer in the breast.

Instead scientists and doctors are looking deeper at what is going wrong inside cancerous cells - a tumour can have 100,000 genetic mutations and these alter over time.

Rapid advances in being able to sequence the genetic code of patients are allowing breakthroughs in understanding which mutations transform a healthy cell into a cancerous one.

Identifying the mutations can then be used to choose the best treatment. The most famous example of this is the drug Herceptin, which is used in breast cancers with a certain genetic abnormality.

The new centre will test samples from patients at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.

The ICR's director, Prof Alan Ashworth, said: "None of this is science fiction. This is now happening. We think we're pioneering the clinical application of this by setting up the Tumour Profiling Unit, but one would think this would be absolutely routine practice for every cancer patient - and that's what we're aiming to bring about."

Treatment is futile

One great challenge with cancer treatment is resistance. Promising drugs suddenly fail after a few months.

Prof Ashworth described it as a "bit like the game whack-a-mole" with a new method of resistance popping up every time a drug kicks a cancer down.

The Tumour Profiling Unit will repeatedly test cancer samples to see how the tumour changes in an attempt to understand resistance.

Other challenges for the field include storing the data. The genetic codes of one million cancer patients would take up the same amount of space as YouTube.

Implementing this form of genetic testing into the NHS is another issue. The test results would need to be made available rapidly and in a way that is easy for doctors to interpret and decide on treatments.

The government has recently announced that up to 100,000 patients with cancer and rare diseases in England are to have their entire genetic code sequenced to aid research.

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