Scientists Crack Genetic Code of Two Common Cancers
Scientists Crack Genetic Code of Two Common Cancers

It is being called a scientific breakthrough. British researchers say they have mapped the entire genetic code for two types of cancers -- small cell lung cancer and melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer.

All cancers are caused by changes in the DNA of cells. DNA carries the cells' genetic information.  That information changes when cells gradually mutate from normal to abnormal and then to malignant over time.

Scientists say if they could only crack the genetic codes of different types of cancers, they could save millions of lives.

Blood tests could spot tumors early on.  And treatment would be far more successful. Dr. Jeanny Aragon-Ching is an oncologist at the George Washington University Medical Center. She says this discovery is a step toward an era of personalized medicine. "That is the thrust now because, for instance, for different types of cancers, we have different types of drugs that target different domains or mutations," she said.

The more information doctors have about how cancer cells develop, the more precisely they can prescribe a treatment to target those particular cells.

British scientists found 30,000 mutations in melanoma, a type of skin cancer that accounts for 75 percent of skin cancer deaths.  They also found 23,000 mutations in small cell lung cancer. But not all of these mutations cause cancer. "It is the role of physicians and scientists to find out which of those mutations are the driving force, or the driving mutation that actually led to the cancer," she said.

Eventually, scientists might be able to target pre-cancerous cells and prevent deadly tumors from forming. But that day is still far away. "As an oncologist, my goal would be to one day see that we can transform cancer into a chronic disease.  Cure is probably too generous of a word the way I see it, but to convert it to something more like chronic disease that is treatable," she said.

Just like high blood pressure that can be controlled with medicine, cancer could be a disease without the suffering we associate with it. Medical scientists the world over are now working to catalogue all the genes that mutate in many types of cancer as part of an International Cancer Genome Consortium. In the United States they are studying cancers of the brain, ovaries and pancreas.

In addition to lung cancer and melanoma, scientists are examining the DNA of breast cancer, as well as cancers of the liver, the mouth and the stomach.  "I think each step forward is a step toward our goal, our ultimate goal, which is to relieve the suffering from cancer," she said.