In 1953, two British researchers, James D. Watson and Francis Crick, won the race to a Nobel Prize by unlocking the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Watson and Crick discovered the double-helix, made up of two inter-connected, spiral staircase-like structures. This watershed event has allowed scientists to make huge strides in human genetic research. It is the opinion of the International Mesothelioma Program (IMP) of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts that understanding genetic sequencing and mutations may hold the key to curing malignant mesothelioma.
DNA is found in chromosomes which are in every single cell in the human body, including cancer cells. Four nucleotides in DNA are arranged to form genes. Genes control cell proteins that send signals to the cell to perform various tasks in cell growth. For example, the proteins will signal cells to stop growing or to die when appropriate, a process known as apoptosis. However, in cancer cells, genetic mutations can cause proteins to improperly signal cells to continue to divide and grow, when they should have stopped. Genomics is the study of genes and their function. Understanding genes and the proteins that signal cells to perform their functions is one of the keys to understanding human disease. Researchers at the IMP feel that the disease malignant mesothelioma, which is resistant to treatment, can be cured if the genetic mutations of the malignant cells can be understood.
Genomes for Lung Cancer and Melanoma Mapped
After months of work, researchers in England successfully mapped the genomes for two deadly malignancies – lung cancer and melanoma. The results of this study were published in the well-respected scientific journal Nature in 2009 by the Cancer Genome Project at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. If the genomes for an individual patient’s tumor can be mapped, this could lead to individualized treatment, because everyone’s cancer contains different genetic mutations. Unfortunately, the cost to do genome mapping is still prohibitively expensive to do on an individual basis.
Genentech and IMP Map Genomes from Malignant Mesothelioma
The IMP is working with the biotechnology company Genentech, Inc. to map the genomes of cells taken from patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma. Genentech, purchased in 2009 by pharmaceutical giant the Roche Group, provides the genomic technology for this research.
According to Gavin Gordon, Ph.D. of the IMP, the genomic mapping includes not only mutated cells, but also the normal cells found in all cancers. These normal cells are essential to providing the nutrients and blood supply to the tumor which allow it to grow. In an interview with attorney Jeffrey T. Ono of Galiher DeRobertis Waxman, Dr. Gavin said that the cost of doing genomic mapping for malignant mesothelioma cells has gone from around $2.5 million to approximately $250,000. These costs would still prevent many mesothelioma patients from having their disease genome mapped, but as costs continue to decrease and more information is obtained, the IMP gets closer to finding a cure for malignant mesothelioma.