What’s 6 billion letters long and makes up every one of the 100 trillion cells in the human body? And why it is so important to cancer research?
The human genetic code is a complex sequence of letters and cells. Each is responsible for the important functioning of our physical and mental health. Each tells a unique story, and scientists have long been fascinated with the human genome and its role in disease.
In 2001, the first full human genome draft sequence was generated. It took 8 years and cost over $3 billion to complete. Now, due to rapid advances in technology, the process takes just 3 days and costs less than $2,000.
This has created an explosion in our understanding of cancer genetics.
Talking to Professor David Thomas, from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and the Cancer Clinical Academic Group at Maridulu Budyari Gumal, he said: “I just can’t imagine a more exciting time to be practicing medicine. This technology, particularly in the cancer space, is the game-changer”.
What this means for cancer research
This is a massive leap forward in the world of cancer research. It means that clinicians can now use this technology to analyse cancer at the point of care.
“What’s fantastic about being a clinician, is that we can take this really attractive idea and see how it can be used in real-time to help patients.” says Professor Thomas.
This means that clinicians can test and treat cancer patients faster than ever before. They can see what’s working and what’s not, so that the outcomes are more favourable. Care is personalised and more patient-centred, and research becomes clinical practice.
Promising news for rare cancers
This technology brings new hope for patients with rare cancers. These types of cancers make up a third of all cancer diagnoses and about half of all cancer-related deaths in Australia.
“That’s in excess of 25,000 deaths each year – taken together, much larger than breast, prostate, bowel, lung and so forth” says Professor Thomas.
While there have been huge advances in the treatment of common cancers, rare cancers are a more complex group of diseases, with worse outcomes.
Using this technology allows clinicians to find common patterns across unrelated cancers, and bring them together in ways that only technology knows how. For the first time, clinicians can bring treatments to a group of individuals who share previously unrelated problems.
Australia’s new genetics program
Professor Thomas has been leading a program using this technology for the last two years. Called the Australian Genomic Cancer Medicine Program, it recently received federal and state government funding.
In fact, the grant received was the largest awarded to cancer research in Australian history. At a time when cancer is the leading cause of death in Western society, this grant is a huge win for cancer patients. Research is fundamental to finding a cure, but it is also costs millions of dollars.
This grant will allow Professor Thomas and his colleagues to take their innovative program to every state and territory in the country. A program, he says, whose origin arose from leadership within the Maridulu Budyari Gumal partnership.
Expanding the program through partnership
While the Australian Genomic Cancer Medicine Program is a beneficiary of the government’s support, this is still a new area nationally.
It’s Professor Thomas’ intention to leverage the support of Maridulu Budyari Gumal’s hospital and university networks to expand his work. Through it, he will support other researchers looking to follow a similar path and reach a far larger number of patients.
As he says about Maridulu Budyari Gumal, “There’s this sense of galvanic enthusiasm to really make a difference in this space.”
Professor Thomas is keen to use this enthusiasm to fuel greater passion in the cancer space. He wants to help other researchers find the support he says he has been fortunate to receive through Maridulu Budyari Gumal.