Cancer mapping laboratory opens in London

In collaboration with the Press Association

A new London-based laboratory is set to help personalise cancer treatment over the coming decade.

The £3 million Tumour Profiling Unit (TPU) at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) will put cancer under a genetic spotlight to identify the specific DNA faults in individual tumours.

In the latest in a series of high-profile genetics initiatives in the UK, the team hope to develop sophisticated clinical trials using state-of-the-art technology. These will not only provide personalised treatments but they will follow the molecular development of tumours over time to come up with ways to combat drug resistance.

One aim of the research is to develop "liquid biopsies" that analyse cancer DNA in blood samples, and could help identify and monitor cancer sub-types that are likely to respond to particular drugs.

The work at the laboratory is due to start this year and is expected to pave the way for new ways to diagnosis and track cancer, as well as ways to target therapy more effectively.

Commenting on the announcement, Kate Law, Cancer Research UK's director of clinical and population research, said: "There's no doubt that such genetic profiling tools will increasingly be used to help match patients to the most appropriate treatment."

The team will also pioneer the use of "mouse avatars" that mirror a patient's disease progression.

Tumour samples from patients will be implanted into mice, which will then be observed closely to spot early signs of molecular change and resistance to therapy.

Professor Alan Ashworth, chief executive of the ICR, said: "None of this is science fiction.

"One would think in five or 10 years this will be absolutely routine practice for every cancer patient."

Genetic profiling of cancer is already being used in cancer research around the world, but the new unit will pioneer its use in the clinic, said Professor Ashworth.

The research has been made possible by the rapid reduction in the cost of genetic sequencing.

It took a decade of work and around £2 billion to produce the first draft of the human genome, or genetic code, in 2000. Today a person's genome can be sequenced in a day or two for as little as £3,000.

The ICR will spend around £3 million on research at the Unit over the next three years.

Scientists hope it will shed light on currently intractable problems, such as dealing with so-called "unknown primaries" - cancers of unknown origin - that account for one in 20 cancers.

It may also help to re-shape the way trials of new cancer treatments are conducted.

Currently, all cancer drugs go through a process that ends with a large Phase III trial, often involving several thousand patients.

In future, such tumour profiling could lead to Phase III trials being replaced by larger numbers of smaller studies that provide much more meaningful results, said Professor Ashworth.

Each would recruit a few hundred patients whose genetic make-up is likely to better suit the treatment being tested.

Kate Law from Cancer Research UK, said: "Understanding the genetic landscape of each patient's tumour will help us to target many of today's life-saving chemotherapies more effectively, and design more sophisticated clinical trials looking for the cancer drugs of tomorrow.

"Cancer Research UK scientists at the ICR and around the UK are already using such cutting-edge sequencing tools to uncover the genetic weaknesses of tumours with the aim of making treatments more precise and effective."

Copyright Press Association 2013