UMMS cancer experts laud discoveries of genetic similarities in different cancers

Whalen and Evens say new findings will inform Cancer Center of Excellence research

By Bryan Goodchild and Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

May 15, 2013

Findings from two new cancer studies yield the best evidence yet that cancer may be better defined by its genetics than the organ in which it originates. These new findings will impact both research and treatment at UMass Medical School and the UMass Memorial Cancer Center of Excellence.

“It’s been the promise that we can unlock the secrets of what will predict tumor behavior by using genetic testing,” said Giles Whalen, MD, professor and vice chair of surgery at UMass Medical School and interim director of the UMass Memorial Cancer Center of Excellence. “This groundbreaking research, looking not just at a particular gene, but an entire tumor genome, shows that how cancers might evolve is not necessarily distinct to the particular cells where they started.”

The studies of endometrial cancer published in Nature and acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which UMMS researchers were not involved with, found striking similarities between the genetics of hard-to-treat forms of each disease and aggressive tumors found in other organs. Both studies are part of the NIH’s ambitious Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) initiative, which is mapping genetic changes in 20 different cancers. The studies will help clinicians better differentiate tumors in order to choose the best treatment available and help scientists identify new targets for cancer drugs.

“These articles are a significant further step into the discovery of the extremely intricate genetic profiles of cancer that researchers have been attempting to map for decades,” said Andrew Evens, DO, associate professor of medicine and deputy director for clinical and translational research at the UMass Memorial Cancer Center. “Knowing the vital connections that cancer cells use to survive will allow us to understand causes of cancer and design more effective treatment strategies that target these abnormalities.”

Whalen and Evens expect that the new findings will help speed similar work already underway at the UMass Memorial Cancer Center of Excellence. “We have the ability to do next-generation deep gene sequencing of our patients’ tumors, using our bioinformatics core,” said Whalen, who highlighted the degree of bioinformatics analysis the TCGA investigators used to reach their conclusions. “We will apply the same lessons in a number of research projects to understand the molecular signatures that take tumors down those particular paths.” Gastrointestinal, gynecologic and blood cancers are among those under study by UMMS researchers.

“Genetic abnormalities have been discovered that suggest that some of the standard treatments for each disease are not going to work very well, and there should be new approaches,” Whalen concluded. Hear more from him about the promise of understanding cancer genetics, and what it means for patients, in the video below.