Grant goes to Hopkins cancer research

$20 million will be used to explore role of genetics

November 17, 2006|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Sun reporter

The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins has been awarded $20 million to further its research into the genetic underpinnings of cancer.

Coming two months after Hopkins researchers reported that they had sequenced the genomes of colon and breast tumors, the grant will help them explore the genetics of several other tumor types.

"It's clear that the best way to understand the nature of cancer and how it occurs is through the study of genetic alterations," said Dr. Bert Vogelstein, who co-directs a cancer genetics laboratory with Dr. Kenneth Kinzler. "Now, we have new tools to do this on a scale that was basically unimaginable in years past."

Next on the agenda are brain, lung and stomach cancers. By identifying the genes behind the distinctive tumors and understanding how they function, scientists hope to develop new therapies to curtail cancer.

The grant, announced Tuesday, comes from the private Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Fund for Cancer Research and is part of a $120 million outlay divided among six leading cancer institutes. The others are affiliated with Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of Chicago and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

In spelling out the complete genetic makeup of breast and colon tumors, the Hopkins scientists identified close to 200 genes whose mutations play roles in the formation and spread of the two cancers. With the new funds, they plan to search for additional mutations in those cancers, while also moving on to characterize the other tumor types.

The first will be medulloblastoma, a type of brain cancer that is the most common primary tumor of the central nervous system in children.

The Hopkins work coincides with a major push by the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute to establish a cancer genome atlas, a genetic mapping of major tumors.

Both the federal program and the privately funded effort at Hopkins reflect a growing recognition that cancer is not one disease, but a constellation in which different genetic mutations cause normal cells to grow uncontrollably and invade tissues.

Many scientists believe that the best therapies will arise from an understanding of the ways genes interact to form cancers and encourage their spread. Though it may be difficult to interfere with each gene involved in a tumor, scientists hope to identify shared molecular pathways through which genes function.

The federal program began this year with a three-year, $100 million pilot program to determine the feasibility of exploring the genetic changes involved in all human cancers. The first federal research grants focus on studies of lung, ovarian and a type of brain cancer known as glioblastoma.

The Ludwig fund, which has offices in New York and Zurich, Switzerland, also supported Vogelstein's and Kinzler's research into colon and breast tumors.

The Hopkins researchers' "work on the genetics of human cancer forms much of the basis for our current understanding and has identified a plethora of potential new therapeutic targets," said a statement by Dr. Lloyd J. Old, chairman of the Ludwig fund's trustees.

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