Cancer's Master Genes

Researchers discover the set of genes behind every human cancer.

By Kathy A. Svitil|Thursday, November 25, 2004

Cancer is difficult to destroy, partly because every type of malignancy is genetically distinct . One suite of genes is active in prostate tumors, for example, while an entirely different group of genes is turned on in breast cancer. As a result, most oncologists have concluded that cancer is actually a whole set of distinct diseases, each demanding an individualized response. Taking a broader view, bioclinicians Daniel Rhodes and Arul Chinnaiyan at the University of Michigan have uncovered a common thread their colleagues overlooked—a master set of genes behind every human cancer, exposing a possible genetic line of attack.

Borrowing a technique from private eyes and demographers, the researchers pored through Oncomine, an online database of cancer-study results, to do some data mining—searching for patterns embedded in a mountain of information. Each study examined tens of thousands of genes to identify those that are active in one or two particular types of cancerous tissues. By pooling the studies, Rhodes’s team singled out 67 genes that all cancers have in common. A second analysis revealed a separate but overlapping group of 69 genes that are linked to aggressive tumors.

“We are not saying that there aren’t distinct differences between cancer types. But regardless of the cancer type, this core set of genes is always turned on and most likely plays a large role in the rapid and disorderly proliferation of cells in cancer’s invasive characteristics,” Rhodes says. “Targeting a number of these genes simultaneously might be a potent new broad-spectrum therapy for cancer.”

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