Getting to the Source of Cancer
How does cancer start? To answer this question, scientists need to understand more about the function of the almost 20,000 genes we each have in every cell in our bodies. The high-profile Human Genome Project mapped the genome. But the next frontier—functional genomics—will improve understanding of what is actually done by all its component parts.
Dr. Jason Moffat, Canada Research Chair in Functional Genomics of Cancer, is increasing knowledge of cancer by cataloguing the genes that are essential for cancer to grow and flourish. His research is already yielding new information about specific types of cancer including breast, pancreatic and ovarian.
Cancer is a disease of the genome. Often, when a genetic mutation associated with cancer is seen, its functional significance remains unknown. In other words, it’s not known how cancer results from altered genetic activity.
The precise combinations of genetic alterations that give rise to a tumour determine how it will behave. The result of these alterations can be a disruption in the signalling networks that cells use to communicate with each other and sense their environment. This can be good news: if communication mechanisms aren’t working properly, cancer cells are potentially left vulnerable, creating opportunities for us to go after them.
Moffat’s research will help identify new cancer cell vulnerabilities, increase understanding of how cancer begins and, ultimately, aid in developing tools to help diagnose and treat cancer.