The Cancer Genome Atlas Project: Taking the Fight to Cancer

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The Cancer Genome Atlas

Established in 2006, The Cancer Genome Atlas is a massive collaboration of scientists working to elucidate the molecular and genomic basis of cancer. It is funded by two US governmental agencies: the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). The Cancer Genome Atlas plans to “characterize more than 10,000 tumors across at least 20 tumor types” all by the year 2015. While this is a huge undertaking requiring equally huge funding, scientists are becoming increasingly excited about the project.

As a funny sidenote, the initials of The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) correspond to the initials of the four DNA bases: thymine (T), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and adenine (A). Who said scientists don’t have a sense of humor?

Why The Cancer Genome Atlas is needed

Everyone is familiar with cancer. The evening news reminds you nightly of things that either prevent cancer or cause cancer. No one doubts the devastation that cancer causes. But why create The Cancer Genome Atlas Project now? There are three important developments in cancer research that prompted the development of a large, organized project such as TCGA.

  1. Identification of specific genetic mutations in cancer. Scientists have been able to locate genetic mutations that are linked to particular cancers, such as breast and colon cancer. More importantly, by studying these specific mutations, scientists have been able to develop effective treatments for a limited range of cancers.
  2. The Human Genome Project. This extensive database provides researchers with a blueprint of what a normal human genome should look like. By using this database, scientists can compare cancer and normal genomes to find differences
  3. High throughput techniques. These techniques allow researchers to screen millions of DNA basepairs quickly and cheaply, a technology that has only been feasible in the last few years. TCGA is committed to developing these techniques further, faster and cheaper.

Recent advances from The Cancer Genome Atlas

Since its inception in 2006, The Cancer Genome Atlas has been surprisingly productive, publishing 21 scientific journal articles in that time. In 2008, TCGA completed the first ever comprehensive study of brain cancers. Studying glioblastomas, the most prevalent brain cancer in adults, scientists identified three new genes that are mutated in glioblastoma cases as well as their functional protein network. Even more exciting, the study discovered that patients posessing an unmethylated version of the MGMT gene respond better than other patients to the chemotherapy drug temozolomide. This advance could have a serious and lifesaving impact on a significant number of glioblastoma patients.

In early 2010, scientists with the Cancer Genome Atlas project have discovered that a subset of patients afflicted with glioblastoma have a “Glioma CpG Island Methylator Phenotype (G-CIMP)”. Unlike regular glioblastoma patients, which have a survival rate of 12-15 months, those with G-CIMP live an average of three years. Researchers are currently working to understand why these patients live longer and how to transfer this knowledge over into effective treatment options for patients without a Glioma CpG Island Methylator Phenotype.


  • The Cancer Genome Atlas. <>
  • The Cancer Genome Atlas Research Network. Comprehensive genomic characterization defines human glioblastoma genes and core pathways. (2008). Nature, 455(7216), 1061-1068. doi:10.1038/nature07385
  • Noushmehr, H., Weisenberger, D. J., Diefes, K., Phillips, H. S., Pujara, K., Berman, B. P., P_an, F., et al. (2010). Identification of a CpG Island Methylator Phenotype that Defines a Distinct Subgroup of Glioma._ Cancer Cell, 17(5), 510-522. doi:10.1016/j.ccr.2010.03.017