Cancer Research in the Genomic Era

author: Eric S. Lander, Broad Institute
published: Feb. 21, 2011,   recorded: June 2006,   views: 421
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Eric Lander likens the current age of biological discovery to the days of great ocean-going exploration. After the world was mapped, no one could imagine what it was like to live “before you knew what would happen if you sailed west.” Following the current revolution in biology, we “won’t be able to imagine what science was like...” This transformation, claims Lander, will be complete in the next decade or so. “MIT students in 2020 will look back with a mixture of amusement and horror at the late 20th century and say, ‘Imagine, people spent years looking for the gene for something.’”

Lander views biology as a vast library that will soon contain information not just about the DNA sequences of species, but ‘volumes’ on individuals, tissues, and cells. With great effort, researchers deciphered the secrets of chromosomes, the double helix, and more recently, the human genome and that of other species. But progress in such discoveries is now moving at a much faster clip due to high-speed computing and the Internet. MIT currently sequences ¼ million pieces of DNA per day, says Lander. He projects this pace will quicken by 20 fold in the next several years.

Fortified by this progress, Lander has compiled an ambitious ‘to-do list:’ identifying “everything that matters” in the human genome, from proteins to the things that control genes; knowing all human genetic variation in the population; knowing how to recognize when a cell “is thinking of one thing or another” based on how genes are turned on or off; knowing all the mechanisms that cause cancer and how to modulate all the genes.

Astonishingly, he says, “This is not the to-do list of the next century, but the next decade.” Lander is confident that researchers will in the not-distant future generate a catalog of the unique genetic signatures associated with “different flavors” of a type of cancer. Scientists will find patterns in diseases, genes and drug responses, and eventually assemble a list of all the genetic variants in the human genome that put individuals at risk for different diseases. These various gene databases will serve “as foundational information for biology for centuries to come,” concludes Lander.

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