20th October 1999

A Revolutionary Project To Identify Cancer Genes

A major initiative aimed at identifying the genes that cause cancer is to be established in the UK. Scientists are setting up a £10 million Cancer Genome Project, which will use the rapidly emerging data from the Human Genome Project to find the gene abnormalities associated with all forms of human cancers. The research will provide vital information for understanding the abnormal biological processes in human cancers and hence assist drug development programmes to combat the disease.

Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the world's largest medical research charity, the Cancer Genome Project will be led by Professor Michael Stratton and Dr Richard Wooster of the Institute of Cancer Research, and sited at the Sanger Centre in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire - already renowned for its leading role in the international Human Genome Project.

The Sanger Centre forms part of an international consortium which is sequencing the DNA of humankind - our genetic blueprint that contains approximately 100,000 genes. This sequence data will provide Professor Stratton and his team with a vital framework on which to build the Cancer Genome Project.

This landmark project will be one of the first examples of how the complete information emerging from the Human Genome Project can be used in understanding human disease. It will provide an opportunity to develop the necessary technology by combining the expertise of biologists and geneticists with the enormous experimental and analytical power of a world leading genome research facility. The technological advances made through the Cancer Genome Project will impact on the study of other human diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

Commenting on the project, Professor Stratton said: "Abnormalities in DNA sequence underlie the development of all types of cancer. The data emerging from the Human Genome Project will give us the normal blueprint against which we can then compare the DNA sequence in cancers and so work out which genes are abnormal."

"The daunting challenge is that the human genome sequence is huge, composed of approximately 3,000 million letters of code. This award from the Wellcome Trust will enable us to develop approaches which will allow systematic examination of the whole genome in large numbers of cancers and thus detect as many of the abnormal genes as possible. Ultimately, identification of these genes will highlight the weak points in cancer cells with which we can interfere and treat the disease."

At present, it is impossible to pinpoint the genomic location of many cancer-associated genes and often only large, poorly defined areas on the 'gene map' can be identified as having a link with the disease. The Cancer Genome Project will make use of the entire human genome sequence data generated by the Sanger Centre together with very high throughput mutation detection techniques to adopt a global and systematic approach to the identification of cancer genes.

Given the resources available to the Wellcome Trust and its support of the Sanger Centre, the Trust is in a unique position to offer the facilities for a project which represents a natural progression of the Trust's substantial investment in genomics.

Commenting on the award, Dr Michael Dexter, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said: "The Trust is committed to the Human Genome Project at the Sanger Centre and has been since its inception in 1992. With completion of this project scheduled for 2003, we want to ensure that research is directed into exploiting genomic data to maximise potential benefits for the future of healthcare. The Cancer Genome Project is a excellent example of how the research community can use sequencing data and focus on specific disease genes."

The Wellcome Trust's longstanding policy of not funding research that is exclusively based on cancer remains in place. The Trust will continue to provide support for proposals which may include cancer only in the context of exploring fundamental biological questions. In addition, the Wellcome Trust will continue to work in collaboration with funding agencies on research programmes associated with cancer when appropriate.

For further information contact:

Noorece Ahmed / Catherine Nestor
Press Office, The Wellcome Trust
Tel: 0171 611 8540 /8846
Fax: 0171 611 8416
Email: n.ahmed@wellcome.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

  1. Professor Michael Stratton and Dr Richard Wooster are cancer geneticists and have been based at the Institute of Cancer Research for eight and two years respectively. Together, in 1995, they discovered the BRCA2 gene. Inherited mutations in BRCA2 greatly increase the risk of developing breast cancer.
  2. Additional support for the Cancer Genome Project will be provided by the Institute of Cancer Research, The Cancer Research Campaign, Breakthrough Breast Cancer and the Royal Marsden Hospital NHS Trust.
  3. One in three people in the West develop cancer and one in five die of the disease. There are over 100 different types of cancer.
  4. The Sanger Centre (http://www.sanger.ac.uk) is one of the world's largest genome sequencing centres. It has funding from the Wellcome Trust to sequence a third of the 3000 million base human genome. The Sanger Centre and the Wellcome Trust have been at the forefront of efforts to keep the human sequence data in the public domain to allow equal access by all to our common genetic heritage.
  5. The Wellcome Trust has a longstanding policy of not funding research which is exclusively clinical cancer research - that is, research which is only relevant to cancer and cannot be applied to other diseases and fundamental biological processes. Examples of past Trust research associated with cancer include: support to the Sanger Centre who collaborated with Professor Stratton and Dr Wooster in research to isolate the breast cancer gene, BRCA2; and joint funding of the Wellcome/CRC Institute for Developmental Biology.
  6. The Wellcome Trust is the world's largest medical research charity with an annual spend of £400 million. The Wellcome Trust supports more than 3,000 researchers at 300 locations in 30 different countries - laying the foundations for the development of new and better treatment of diseases in the next century and helping to maintain the UK's reputation as one of the world's leading scientific nations. As well as funding major initiatives in the public understanding of science, the Wellcome Trust is the country's leading supporter of research into the history of medicine.

Sanger Institute Contact Information:

Don Powell Press Officer
Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute Hinxton, Cambs, CB10 1SA, UK

Tel +44 (0)1223 496 928
Mobile +44 (0)7753 7753 97
Fax +44 (0)1223 494 919
Email press.office@sanger.ac.uk

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