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Updated: January 22, 2014 11:20 IST

Cancer genomics, the way forward: Nobel laureate

Special Correspondent
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Harold Varmus
Harold Varmus

Cancer was rising especially in less developed countries: Harold Varmus

Targeted therapy, precision medicine and cancer genomics — this is the new vocabulary of cancer research and treatment that Harold Varmus, co-recipient of the Nobel Prize, advocated in his lecture ‘New directions in cancer research’ at the Indian Institute of Science on Tuesday.

“It is more important to know which gene causes cancer than what tissue it affects,” said Prof. Varmus, who is also the director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), U.S. While conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy targets cancer tissues, cancer genomics looks at the mutations the disease triggers, the proteins associated with it, therefore helping with more precise treatment, he said.

Cancer was rising especially in less developed countries, he cautioned, and added that the number of deaths by cancer was projected to be 11 million by 2030 around the world. The study of cancer genes had, however, dramatically helped improve cancer therapy, Prof. Varmus said.

‘Molecular atlas’

The Cancer Genome Atlas (an initiative of the NCI) was now creating a ‘molecular atlas’ that maps genomic changes in 20 common cancers, in the hope that this would help improve cancer treatment.

The United States had spent $40 billion on cancer research in 10 years, but this had to be seen in the context of the money saved in terms of healthcare and treatment, he added. Research had revealed that the density of mutations differs for each tumour: while childhood tumours, for instance, have lower mutations, those associated with external triggers — UV light or carcinogens — have greater mutations.

There were, however, several questions that remain unanswered, he added: why are there regional variations in cancer rates? Why are different tissues so dramatically different in their tendency to develop cancer? Why are some species less prone to cancer than others (turtles, for instance, rarely develop the disease while mice often do)?

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