At the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Professor Sir Mike Stratton will lead a Cancer Research UK Grand Challenge team aiming to build a deeper understanding of what causes cancer.
It’s already known that things in our environment, and behaviours such as smoking and drinking alcohol, cause cancer by damaging the DNA in our cells. This damage occurs in distinctive patterns known as mutational fingerprints that are unique to their cause. For example, cancers caused by UV exposure have a different mutational fingerprint to cancers caused by tobacco.
There are at least 50 cancer-associated mutational fingerprints but researchers only know what causes around half of them. Professor Stratton’s team hope to fill in the missing gaps and determine the as yet unknown causes of cancer.
They’ll do this by studying 5,000 pancreatic, kidney, oesophageal and bowel cancer samples, which come from five continents. This will generate as much cancer DNA sequencing data as the whole world has produced so far. This work could help prevent more cancers and reduce the global burden of the disease.
Professor Stratton said: “The main aim of our Grand Challenge is to understand the causes of cancer. Every cancer retains an archaeological trace, a record in its DNA, of what caused it. It’s that record that we want to explore to find out what caused the cancer.
“We’re going to sequence the DNA of thousands of cancer samples that have been collected from many different countries around the world, and study them to see what archaeological trace they contain. By doing this, we hope to figure out what caused those cancers.
“The thing that’s really exciting me is the challenge of making it all happen. And I’m looking forward to seeing the answers this work brings.”