Cancer centers racing to map patients’ genes

April 22, 2013
Human genome sequence

A DNA sequence from the human genome (Credit: Silky M/Wikimedia Commons)

Major academic medical centers in New York and around the country are spending and recruiting heavily in what has become an arms race within the war on cancer.

The investments are based on the belief that the medical establishment is moving toward the routine sequencing of every patient’s genome in the quest for “precision medicine,” a course for prevention and treatment based on the special, even unique characteristics of the patient’s genes, The New York Times reports.

Among other projects, Harvard Medical School has its Center for Biomedical Informatics, which among a broad array of approaches uses mathematical modeling to predict when genetic information could lead to more effective treatment. Phoenix Children’s Hospital opened the Ronald A. Matricaria Institute of Molecular Medicine in December, recruiting researchers from Los Angeles and Baltimore and planning to sequence the genomes of 30 percent of their childhood cancer patients in their search for better therapies.

Johns Hopkins, with its focus on public health, wants to develop a “systematic genomic sequencing program” over the next two years that will combine genomic analysis with a patient’s environmental exposure, family history and other factors to support preventive medicine, said Scott Zeger, vice provost for research.

Sequencing an entire genome currently costs in the neighborhood of $5,000 to $10,000, not including the interpretation of the information. The race entails large sums spent not only on construction and technology but also recruitment, salaries and incentives for scientists like Weill-Cornell’s Dr. Lewis Cantley, who was lured from Harvard, or Eric E. Schadt, plucked from the biotech world to head the Mount Sinai Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology.

NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell announced a new Institute for Precision Medicine, headed by a prostate cancer expert, in January. (The newly fashionable term “precision medicine” is an updated version of another genomics buzzword, “personalized medicine.”)

Mount Sinai has collected what it calls an electronic “biobank” of information on 24,000 patients, who have agreed to participate in DNA sequencing and research over their lifetimes.

Some of that information will be fed into the supercomputer, which is named Minerva, after the Roman goddess of wisdom. Data storage alone is a challenge: one genome is 300 gigabytes of raw data per patient sample.

At this point, scientists have only an imperfect understanding of how snippets of genetic material can determine a patient’s chances of getting many diseases, especially more common ones. And patients are often reluctant to enroll in clinical trials of drugs still in development. But by setting up the right infrastructure — collecting and sequencing patient DNA, identifying patients who could benefit from a particular drug and aggressively recruiting patients for trials — the academic medical centers hope to play a bigger role in the development of new drugs, which could lead to lucrative patent royalties.