|Every 3 years, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) asks researchers, advisory panels, and advocacy groups to recommend "extraordinary opportunities for investment," which it defines as "broad-based, overarching areas of scientific pursuit that hold tremendous promise for significantly expanding our understanding of cancer." This is the third in a series of interviews exploring the progress and promise of NCI’s six current extraordinary opportunities: Genes and the environment; cancer imaging; defining the signature of cancer cells (below); molecular targets of prevention and treatment; research on tobacco and tobacco-related cancers; and cancer communications.|
BETHESDA, MarylandAs researchers probe the complex nature of individual cancer cells, unique molecular patterns, or signatures, have emerged. Several drugs based on early findings in the field have already earned US Food and Drug Administration approval. A goal set by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is to "catalog distinguishing molecular signatures of cancer cells to develop new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches and predict response."
Dr. Robert L. Strausberg, PhD, director of NCI’s Cancer Genomics Office, discussed the Institute’s extraordinary opportunity in signature research with ONI Washington bureau chief Patrick Young.
ONI: Would you define what NCI means by the signatures of cancer cells?
Dr. Strausberg: Traditionally, we have defined cancer by body location and various features that can be seen under the microscope. When we talk about signatures, we are talking about understanding the molecular events that distinguish one cancer cell from other cancer cells and from normal cells, and using changes in the genetic blueprint to identify a unique signature that tells us how that cancer cell is different. That allows us, for example, to distinguish different types of breast tumors.
ONI: Can you give me a specific example of a cancer signature?
Dr. Strausberg: I will give you several. Gleevec [imatinib mesylate], whose development for CML [chronic myelogenous leukemia] predates NCI’s extraordinary opportunity, was based on a chromosomal aberrationthe 9;22 translocation, or Philadelphia chromosome, which is seen in almost all cases of CML. This is what we would call a molecular signature.
Going from that signature to actually having an intervention was a long process. First, researchers had to determine if the translocation was involved in the genesis of the cancer and also its maintenance. Then they could develop a drug that targeted the protein of that genetic region to treat the cancer.