“If we wish to learn more about cancer, we must now concentrate on the cellular genome.” Nobel laureate Renato Dulbecco penned those words more than 20 years ago in one of the earliest public calls for what would become the Human Genome Project. “Either try to discover the genes important in malignancy by a piecemeal approach, or sequence the whole genome.”
Dulbecco and others in the scientific community grasped that sequencing the human genome, though a monumental achievement itself, would mark just the first step of the quest to fully understand the biology of cancer. Over the span of two decades Dulbecco’s vision has moved from pipe dream to reality. Less than three years after the Human Genome Project’s completion, the National Institutes of Health has officially launched the pilot stage of an effort to create a comprehensive catalogue of the genomic changes involved in cancer: The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA).
When applied to the 50 most common types of cancer, this effort could ultimately prove to be the equivalent of more than 10,000 Human Genome Projects in terms of the sheer volume of DNA to be sequenced. The dream must therefore be matched with an ambitious but realistic assessment of the emerging scientific opportunities for waging a smarter war against cancer.