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The Cancer Genome Atlas

Creative Minds: Bacteria, Gene Swaps, and Human Cancer

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Julie Dunning Hotopp

Julie Dunning Hotopp

When Julie Dunning Hotopp was a post-doctoral fellow in the early 2000s, bacteria were known for swapping bits of their DNA with other bacteria, a strategy known as lateral gene transfer. But the offloading of genes from bacteria into multicellular organisms was thought to be rare, with limited evidence that a bacterial genus called Wolbachia, which invades the cells of other organisms and takes up permanent residence, had passed off some of its DNA onto a species of beetle and a parasitic worm. Dunning Hotopp wondered whether lateral gene transfer might be a more common phenomenon than the evidence showed.

She and her colleagues soon discovered that Wolbachia had engaged in widespread lateral gene transfer with eight species of insects and nematode worms, possibly passing on genes and traits to their invertebrate hosts [1]. This important discovery put Dunning Hotopp on a research trail that now has taken a sharp turn toward human cancer and earned her a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award. This NIH award supports exceptionally innovative research projects that are inherently risky and untested but have the potential to change fundamental research paradigms in areas such as cancer and throughout the biomedical sciences.

NIH Researchers Recognized for Service to America

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Steve Rosenberg

Caption: Steve Rosenberg receiving his Sammie as 2015 Federal Employee of the Year.
Credit: Aaron Clamage/

It was a pleasure for me last night to attend the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, also known as “the Sammies.” This Washington, D.C. event, now in its 12th year as the “Oscars of American government service,” was a big night for NIH. Steven Rosenberg, a highly regarded physician-scientist at NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI), took home the evening’s highest honor as the 2015 Federal Employee of the Year.

Also hearing their names called were NCI’s Jean Claude Zenklusen and Carolyn Hutter of NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). They received the inaugural People’s Choice Award. It marks the highest vote-getter from the general public, which was invited to choose from among this year’s 30 finalists in eight award categories.

Jean Claude Zenklusen and Carolyn Hutter

Caption: Francis Collins presenting 2015 People’s Choice Award medals to Jean Claude Zenklusen and Carolyn Hutter.
Credit: Aaron Clamage/

Precision Oncology: Creating a Genomic Guide for Melanoma Therapy

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Melanoma cell

Caption: Human malignant melanoma cell viewed through a fluorescent, laser-scanning confocal microscope. Invasive structures involved in metastasis appear as greenish-yellow dots, while actin (green) and vinculin (red) are components of the cell’s cytoskeleton.
Credit: Vira V. Artym, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, NIH

It’s still the case in most medical care systems that cancers are classified mainly by the type of tissue or part of the body in which they arose—lung, brain, breast, colon, pancreas, and so on. But a radical change is underway. Thanks to advances in scientific knowledge and DNA sequencing technology, researchers are identifying the molecular fingerprints of various cancers and using them to divide cancer’s once-broad categories into far more precise types and subtypes. They are also discovering that cancers that arise in totally different parts of the body can sometimes have a lot in common. Not only can molecular analysis refine diagnosis and provide new insights into what’s driving the growth of a specific tumor, it may also point to the treatment strategy with the greatest chance of helping a particular patient.

The latest cancer to undergo such rigorous, comprehensive molecular analysis is malignant melanoma. While melanoma can rarely arise in the eye and a few other parts of the body, this report focused on the more familiar “cutaneous melanoma,” a deadly and increasingly common form of skin cancer [1].  Reporting in the journal Cell [2], The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) Network says it has identified four distinct molecular subtypes of melanoma. In addition, the NIH-funded network identified an immune signature that spans all four subtypes. Together, these achievements establish a much-needed framework that may guide decisions about which targeted drug, immunotherapy, or combination of therapies to try in an individual with melanoma.

Head and Neck Cancer: Building the Evidence Base for Precision Oncology

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squamous cell carcinoma

Caption: Triple immunohistochemical stained oral squamous cell carcinoma: nuclei in brown, cytoplasm in red, and cytoplasmic membranes in blue green.
Credit: Alfredo A. Molinolo, Oral and Pharyngeal Cancer Branch, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, NIH

An exciting new era in cancer research is emerging, called precision oncology. It builds on decades of research establishing that cancers start with glitches in the genome, the cell’s instruction book. Researchers have now identified numerous ways that mutations in susceptible genes can drive the cancer process. Knowing where and how to look for them brings greater precision to diagnosing cancers and gives doctors key clues about which treatments might work and which ones won’t.

To build a firmer evidence base for precision oncology, more and more cancer genomes, from many different body sites, must be analyzed for clues about the drivers of the malignant process. That’s why it’s always exciting to see a new genomic analysis that adds substantially to our understanding of a common tumor. The latest to appear, published online at the journal Nature, comes from an NIH-supported study on the most common type of head and neck cancer, called squamous cell carcinoma. The technologically advanced analysis confirms that many previously suspected genes do indeed play a role in head and neck cancer. But that’s not all. The new data also identify several previously unknown subtypes of this cancer. The first descriptions of the abnormal molecular wiring in these subtypes are outlined, suggesting possible strategies  to neutralize or destroy the cancer cells. That’s potentially good news to help guide and inform the treatment of the estimated 55,000 Americans who are diagnosed with a head and neck cancer each year.

Different Cancers Can Share Genetic Signatures

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Cancer types floating over a cell with unraveling DNA

NIH-funded researchers analyzed the DNA of these cancers.

Cancer is a disease of the genome. It arises when genes involved in promoting or suppressing cell growth sustain mutations that disturb the normal stop and go signals.  There are more than 100 different types of cancer, most of which derive their names and current treatment based on their tissue of origin—breast, colon, or brain, for example. But because of advances in DNA sequencing and analysis, that soon may be about to change.

Using data generated through The Cancer Genome Atlas, NIH-funded researchers recently compared the genomic fingerprints of tumor samples from nearly 3,300 patients with 12 types of cancer: acute myeloid leukemia, bladder, brain (glioblastoma multiforme), breast, colon, endometrial, head and neck, kidney, lung (adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma), ovarian, and rectal. Confirming but greatly extending what smaller studies have shown, the researchers discovered that even when cancers originate from vastly different tissues, they can show similar features at the DNA level

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