Backgrounder

There may be more than 200 different types of cancer and many more subtypes, each caused by glitches in DNA that trigger the uncontrolled growth of cells. Identifying the changes in each cancer’s complete set of DNA – its genome – and understanding how such changes interact to drive the disease process will lay the foundation for a personalized era of cancer care.

Toward this end, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has established The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) to generate comprehensive, multi-dimensional maps of the key genomic changes in major types and subtypes of cancer. This catalog will serve as a powerful resource for a new generation of research aimed at developing better strategies for diagnosing, treating and preventing each type of cancer. TCGA also provides a model for many other international cancer genome mapping projects and considers these efforts in planning its endeavors.

Jointly led by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), TCGA is changing the way genetic cancer research is done. Following the example set by the Human Genome Project, TCGA's collaborative research network has pulled together researchers from diverse disciplines and multiple institutions to produce valuable sets of reference data for use by the worldwide research community.

A pilot effort initiated by NCI and NHGRI in 2006 developed the policies, production pipeline, collaborative research network, databases and analytical tools necessary for TCGA's large-scale study of cancer genomics. Already, the pilot’s characterizations of brain tumors and ovarian cancer have shown that this systematic, high-volume approach can generate unprecedented amounts of data of unequalled quality — data that are quickly being integrated into the work of basic and clinical researchers around the globe.

In September 2009, NCI and NHGRI announced that TCGA will move forward to produce comprehensive genomic maps of at least 20 types of cancer over the next five years. TCGA is uniquely positioned to achieve this ambitious goal based on the pilot’s success in establishing key infrastructure and processes. These achievements include the abilities to: acquire tumor samples, along with matched samples of normal tissue, from a wide range of clinical sites; efficiently extract DNA and its sister molecule, RNA, from tissue samples; rapidly characterize and sequence thousands of DNA and RNA samples; collaboratively analyze and integrate diverse types of data; and swiftly provide data to the research community through public databases designed to protect patient privacy.

TCGA's comprehensive study of more than 20 cancers will be made possible by the investment of $175 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. Not only will the Recovery Act funding enable researchers to increase DNA sequencing capacity to characterize more cancers in a shorter time frame, the additional support will provide them with the opportunity to map some tumor samples in much more detail than originally planned. Recovery Act funding also will fuel the development of new bioinformatics tools and computational models for analysis of integrated genomic data. In another important development, TCGA will use Recovery Act funds to build a more robust pipeline for acquiring large numbers of tumor and matched normal tissue sample. In addition to the tremendous boost it provides to efforts to conquer cancer, TCGA's Recovery Act funding will retain and create a large number of biomedical research jobs at academic institutions, non-profit organizations and private companies across the nation. NCI and NHGRI will also each commit $50 million in non-Recovery Act funds to TCGA over this two-year period, bringing the total investment in TCGA to $275 million.

This pioneering effort to map and analyze cancer genomes in a large-scale, systematic manner will ultimately change the way cancer is treated. For example, TCGA data will enable both public and private sector researchers to pursue targeted therapies or combinations of therapies aimed at the specific pathways involved in a certain cancer type or subtype. This new level of insight promises to significantly shorten the time and reduce the costs involved in drug development.

In summary, the investment of Recovery Act funds in TCGA offers an unprecedented opportunity to create a resource that will transform our understanding of cancer. Just as the Human Genome Project expanded scientific horizons far beyond its sequencing of one human genome, TCGA's impact will be felt beyond the specific cancers it maps. TCGA will chart a new course for the entire field of cancer research, pointing the way to more effective, individualized approaches for helping each patient with cancer.

 

Last Updated: February 2011