Thursday, June 12, 2014
The war on cancer is being waged right on your doorstep. In laboratories at the Sanger Institute, in Hinxton, scientists are working on a revolutionary way to tackle the deadly disease.
Their aim? To produce “personalised medicine” by analysing human DNA – making it possible to tailor treatments to the needs of individual patients.
It would be a breakthrough considered “the Holy Grail” for clinicians, according to chief executive of the Breast Cancer Campaign, Baroness Delyth Morgan.
Dr Sam Behjati, who works on the Cancer Genome Project, said the ultimate aim was for the personalised treatment to replace chemotherapy.
He said: “What we can do now is take a tumour and compare it with normal cell DNA from the same person to look at the difference between the two.
Set up in 1992
1,100 people employed
£100m operating budget per year
Was at the forefront of a £1billion, 10-year, global effort to create the first human genome
Can now read DNA by working out the sequence of chemical letters in our genetic material and that of other organisms
Use this to find differences that can influence human disease and identify the genes that cause cancer
Huge number of staff live in this area, many of whom are bussed in from Saffron Walden
“This allows us to identify the mutations which caused the cancer and target those mutations with specific treatment rather than using chemotherapy, which is effectively whole body poison.”
The scientific field is known as genomics – a branch of molecular biology concerned with the mapping of DNA – and has the backing of David Cameron.
Two years ago, the Prime Minister announced that £100m had been set aside for up to 100,000 patients with cancer and rare diseases in England to have their entire genetic code sequenced.
The hope is that by comparing genetic profiles of huge numbers of patients, it will allow scientists to more fully understand why some patients do better than others – and help in the quest for new treatments.
“By unlocking the power of DNA data, the NHS will lead the global race for better tests, better drugs and above all better care,” Mr Cameron said.
Dr Behjati added: “One aim is to try and understand the different mutations causing the cancer so we can find new treatments.
“A big step that needs to happen next is the introduction of the technology into everyday NHS clinical practice.
“Then, when a pathologist examines a tumour under a microscope, he or she also sequences it to find out what is driving the cancer.
“This data can then be used to identify a personalised cancer treatment for each person.
“It can also more accurately predict how the cancer is going to behave.”
But it is not just cancer that the new generation sequencing technology is being used to tackle.
Dr Julia Wilson, associate director for external relations at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said scientific advancements could lead to genetic profiles being available at GP surgeries within the next two or three decades.
It means the next generation is likely to have the ability to make healthcare decisions based on analysis of their genetic make-up.
Examples include identifying whether an individual is at risk of a heart attack, obesity or diabetes. A GP will even be able to determine whether a child is likely to be allergic to a particular type of medicine.
“Over the next decade we will understand the inherited portion of most diseases,” Dr Wilson said.
“Eventually, we will be able to use genetic information for everyday things, such as an individual’s reaction to antibiotics and the best treatments for certain ailments.”