What is a cancer genome?

According to the National Cancer Institute, a genome is the complete genetic material of a living organism. Packaged sets of chromosomes that make up the genes of a cell make up a genome.

A cancer genome is the DNA from a cancer cell. Small changes or mutations in the genes of healthy cells are what lead the cells to become cancer cells.

The study of cancer genomes, called genomics, is a growing area of study. By comparing cancer genomes to genomes of healthy cells, scientists are discovering new things about cancer every day. As more and more genomes are studied researchers believe they will discover certain genes that can be targeted in treatments. It is hoped these new targeted treatments will be more effective, possibly even curative, as well as providing fewer side effects. Certain mutations might also be a sign that a person has a higher cancer risk and should be screened for cancer more regularly. A well-known example of this is the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations that increase the risk of someone getting breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

The NCI, in partnership with National Human Genome Research Institute, created The Cancer Genome Atlas in 2006. This project wants to create maps of different types of cancer genomes so that treatments can become more specialized. Also by comparing these different maps of cancer genomes, scientists might find patterns that emerge. In the future they might be able to test for certain genetic mutations that can reveal whether a cancer is aggressive or slow growing, in addition to which treatments will work best.

It is hoped that in the future genomics will lead to a more individualized type of cancer treatment.

For more information contact Courtney Britton, librarian at Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge at (225) 927-2273, cbritton@cancerservices.org , or visit the Education Center at 550 Lobdell Ave., Baton Rouge.

n On the internet:

Explaining Cancer Genome Research – American Society of Clinical Oncology


Cancer Genome Atlas


This column is presented as a service by Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge, a United Way affiliate.