Reclassifying Cancer

Cancers are often categorized–and treated–according to where they are found in the body. But it may be more effective to base treatment on the molecular makeup of cancers, regardless of where they occur, according to a study published in Cell.

The same role can be played by cells in different parts of the body, explained Josh Stuart, a professor of biomolecular engineering at UC Santa Cruz and senior author on the paper. For example, cells that develop to form layers on surfaces may line the bladder, the throat, or other places. With similar origins, these cells may also share molecular pathways leading to cancer, and respond to the same treatments.

As part of the TCGA Pan-Cancer Initiative, a team from UCSC and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging led researchers to analyze data from 3,500 patients with 12 different cancer types. When the cancers were grouped by “cell of origin,” the data suggested that 10 percent of these cancers could be reclassified, potentially leading to different treatment options.

“This molecular information gives us a new kind of microscope to look at cancer,” said Stuart.

The researchers are now refining their results, analyzing 35 tumor types from 11,000 patient samples.

The UCSC-Buck team is led by Josh Stuart, David Haussler, the director of the UCSC Genomics Institute, and Christopher Benz, of the Buck Institute in California.