Project seeks genetic basis of childhood cancer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Researchers announced a new project on Monday to sequence all the genes in childhood tumors to try to discover previously unknown causes of cancer.

A researcher at Washington University School of Medicine in an undated image courtesy of the school. Researchers announced a new project on Monday to sequence all the genes in childhood tumors to try to discover previously unknown causes of cancer. REUTERS/Washington University School of Medicine/Handout

They also hope they can use the research to help tailor treatments for children, to spare them radiation and chemotherapy that may do them little good.

The collaboration between St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis parallels a similar project funded by the U.S. government to sequence all the genes in 20 common adult cancers.

The project focusing on children uses mostly private donations, said Dr. Larry Shapiro, dean of Washington University School of Medicine.

“Our belief and our expectation is that pediatric cancer is going to have different genetic alterations than adult cancers,” Shapiro said in a telephone interview.

Washington University has a genomics center that helped lead the Human Genome Project to map all the human DNA and which is also taking part in the National Institutes of Health-led adult cancer atlas project.

St. Jude is a children’s research hospital that focuses especially on cancer.

“The patient recruitment has already been done by St. Jude,” said Shapiro, who noted that children with cancer are much more likely to be enrolled in medical studies than adults with cancer.

“Going back more than 10 to 15 years they have been specifically collecting tissues. So we are ready to go and, in fact, the first samples are already in our labs being sequenced.”

Shapiro said the team will be able to see how different children fared on different treatments, and look for changes in DNA that might be used to explain these differences.

That, in turn, may lead to genetic tests that can guide doctors to the best treatments for their young patients, and may in the longer run help in developing better treatments for childhood cancer.

The study, projected to cost $65 million over three years, will start with 600 childhood cancer patients.

“We are on the threshold of a revolution in our understanding of the origins of cancer,” Dr. William Evans, St. Jude director and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

“For the first time in history, we have the tools to identify all of the genetic abnormalities that turn a white blood cell into a leukemia cell or a brain cell into a brain tumor.”

St. Jude said $20 million of the funding will come from the Signet Jewelers Ltd. subsidiary Kay Jewelers.

Editing by David Storey