Genomic Tools Identify Profiles of Gene Activity Underlying Cancer

Armen Hareyan's picture
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Researchers have developed a new gene-profiling technique that can define complex patterns of gene activity in cancerous tumors having different genetic origins.

By developing a more complete picture of the subtle differences in gene activity associated with cancer-causing pathways, the method might ultimately allow physicians to tailor treatments to individual patients and better predict disease outcomes, said the researchers.

"The gene profiles allow us to be much more precise," said study co-author Joseph Nevins, Ph.D., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and James B. Duke Professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke University Medical Center. "Now, we can find subtleties among tumors that we can't see under the microscope and also uncover the biology to better understand the basis of the disease." The method highlights the power of genomics and statistics to move toward a personalized approach to medicine, Nevins said.

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Mutations in individual cancer-causing genes, called oncogenes, elicit a cascade of changes in the activity of hundreds of other interacting genes, either increasing or decreasing their activity, explained study lead author Erich Huang, M.D., who will begin his surgical residency this summer at Duke University Medical Center.

Rather than focusing on single genes in isolation, the new method provides a more global view of the many shifts in gene activity characteristic of cancers having a specific genetic cause, the Duke team said.

The study, a collaboration between the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy (IGSP) and Georgetown University's Lombardi Cancer Center in Washington, D.C., will be published online in the June, 2003 issue of Nature Genetics. The new results build upon the Duke team's earlier work, published in the May 10, 2003, issue of The Lancet, which found that a similar genetic profiling method could predict the spread and recurrence of breast cancer with a high degree of accuracy.

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