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The Cancer Genome Atlas Pilot Launches

By Kevin Davies

Feb 15, 2006 | Researchers from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) announced in December the launch of a three-year, $100 million pilot program for the Human Cancer Genome Project (HCGP).

Many senior U.S. researchers have publicly lobbied for a cancer genome project — one American dies of cancer every 60 seconds. In 2005, Broad Institute director Eric Lander floated the idea of a nine-year, $1.3 billion HCGP, backed by former NIH director Harold Varmus and others. Lander suggested surveying 250 genome samples from each of 250 tumor types, producing a comprehensive catalogue of cancer-causing mutations.

In a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., NHGRI director Francis Collins noted that while “more than 300 genes contribute to the diabolical transformation of normal cells into cancer cells,” a complete inventory of the genetic aberrations in cancer was urgently needed.

Collins said the unique collaboration between the NCI and the NHGRI would “go beyond and behind the frontlines to create the first list of genomic insurgents that lead to cancer.” The project will be called The Cancer Genome Atlas, or TCGA.

Collins said the TCGA pilot project would unite the “powerful resources and experience of the [NCI] with the genome attitude of the [NHGRI]... Together, we’ve committed to investing $100 million over the next three years to construct a powerful network of researchers, technology, and resources to tackle the cancer problem like never before.”

“This is an audacious project,” said Collins. “We could not have undertaken this project until now. The biomedical research projects are aligned, the time is right.”

Andrew von Eschenbach, director of the NCI, said the TCGA pilot project would help make cancer a chronic manageable condition. “Mapping the cancer genome will important step in the understanding of the genetic component of the cancer process and the genetic susceptibility of people who are threatened by cancer.”

Project leaders said that all the data would be deposited in the public domain. The first tumor types to be studied will be selected in the next few months. Milestones will be set along the way to determine whether the project should be scaled up.

Collins acknowledged that there has been some anxiety about the total cost of the TCGA. “We have no idea” of the ultimate cost, he admitted, adding that lessons learned in the coming three years will determine the cost of expanding the project from two to three tumors to 50 or more. “Having a pilot project is a strong inspiration for the development of new technologies and the optimization of existing ones,” said Collins.


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