Research seeks cause of childhood cancers

Monday, January 25, 2010 | 1:24 p.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — Two major research institutions are launching the largest-ever attempt to identify and understand the genetic origins of childhood cancers in hopes it will lead to better diagnosis, targeted treatment and perhaps even prevention.

The urgency of childhood cancer, along with genome technology that made the project affordable, prompted the collaboration, said researchers at The Genome Center at Washington University in St. Louis and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. They announced the three-year, $65 million project Monday.

According to the announcement, it is, to date, the largest research effort to identify genetic changes that give rise to childhood leukemia, brain tumors and cancers of bone, muscle and other tissue.

Every cell in the body has DNA, and the collection of that genetic information is the genome, which encodes every inherited feature from height and eye color to how the body reacts to cancer-causing forces in the environment, or cancer-fighting drugs.

The research will involve 600 child patients of St. Jude who donated samples of normal tissue and tumors. Researchers will sequence the genomes of each child's normal and cancer tissue and compare them, looking for differences that could be the cause or result of the disease.

"It's a huge black box, and we're struggling to understand why some kids get cancer and others live to their 90s without it," said Dr. Rick Wilson, director of the genome center.

He said "bits and pieces" of the genome in children have been studied, but no one has done it in its entirety. He said the difference in what researchers can learn by doing whole genome sequencing is like venturing out on a large ship with a trawler as opposed to fishing in a small boat with a rod and reel.

The genome center described similar work on an adult leukemia patient in St. Louis for the journal Nature and found 10 mutations. The center has since held dozens of similar research projects on adult patients.

According to Wilson, the large sample in this research is buttressed by rich clinical information on each child that was collected at St. Jude. Since the 1970s, the hospital has maintained a bank of tumor tissue that was surgically removed and frozen for research with families' consent.

Dr. William Evans, CEO and director of St. Jude, said childhood cancer accounts for 70 percent of St. Jude's work.

"It's still the No. 1 cause of death in U.S. children," he said.

Evans explained that while smoking and other activities may raise the cancer risk in adults, "in children, we don't know the cause, what genes have been mutated."

He said the three-year effort won't solve the mystery and likely will raise even more questions.

Evans said St. Jude's $55 million share of the funding will come from individual donors including Kay Jewelers, which committed $20 million. The rest, he said, will come from St. Jude's budget over the next three years. Washington University will fund the remainder over time from existing resources, he said.

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