In an unprecedented effort to attack childhood cancer at its root causes, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and a St. Louis university Monday announced a three-year, $65-million initiative to identify the genetic changes that induce normal cells to grow into tumors.
The Pediatric Cancer Genome Project, a partnership between St. Jude and the Washington University School of Medicine, will decode the genomes of more than 600 childhood cancer patients who have been treated at St. Jude and contributed tumor samples.
The initiative should clear the way for a “revolution” in the treatment of cancer, which remains the leading cause of death by disease for children aged 14 and under, said Dr. William E. Evans, St. Jude’s director and CEO.
“It’s going to change the way the world thinks about childhood cancer,” Evans said.
St. Jude and other institutions have enjoyed major successes in reducing the death rates from many types of childhood cancers. But curing the young patients often requires subjecting them to “two and a half years of toxic treatment,” Evans said.
In the genome project, scientists will compare the DNA of cancer cells and healthy cells of the same individuals to pinpoint the mutations that led to cancer. Until now, researchers have lacked the tools to identify the genetic abnormalities that turn a white blood cell into leukemia or a brain cell into a tumor.
The pediatric genome project will complement an initiative called the Cancer Genome Atlas, which tracks the origins of adult cancers, said Dr. Joe Vockley, director of the project office at the National Cancer Institute.
St. Jude chose Washington University as its partner largely because it pioneered efforts to sequence the genomes of cancer patients.
The project is sponsored in part by Kay Jewelers, a longtime St. Jude supporter that has pledged $20 million to the effort.
No more than about three per cent of St. Jude’s annual budget of about $525 million will be devoted to the effort, Evans said.