Posted on 13 June 2002
Professor Norman Maitland, Director of the Cancer Research Unit at the University of York, is one of a group of researchers whose work has led to the discovery of a major genetic change that leads to malignant melanoma, a skin cancer that kills more than 1,600 people a year in the UK. Researchers say that the mutation of a gene called BRAF, which makes skin cells grow out of control, is so clear-cut that drugs are already being designed to block the action of the defective gene.
The discovery is the first fruit of the Cancer Genome Project, the world's largest cancer genome study, at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. The Institute is one of the world's leading centres for genome research, renowned worldwide for its pivotal role in the international Human Genome Project.
Malignant melanoma, which is mainly caused by undue exposure to sunlight, accounts for just eleven percent of skin cancers, but almost all of the deaths. The incidence of malignant melanoma has doubled in the past decade.
The Cancer Genome Project is a Wellcome Trust-funded programme to identify the genes that are mutated and cause cells to behave as cancers. To do this they intend to use the human genome sequence (of which a third was generated at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute) to examine systematically all 30,000 genes in about 50 human cancers. To assess the importance of the genes that are discovered the Cancer Genome Project has collected the world's largest collection of cancer cell lines (approximately 1500).
Professor Maitland said, "We are delighted by the success of the Cancer Genome Project and this potentially significant result. Our role, in what is an international collaboration, was to provide the means of testing prostate tumours. Regrettably for the 21,000 men diagnosed in the UK each year with prostate cancer, there were no changes found in the BRAF gene. We are however confident that the Cancer Genome Project will unearth new genetic defects which should allow us to both target more therapies and to predict the course of prostate cancer more easily. International groups of researchers, such as those at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and the Institute of Cancer Research, provide significant added value for the major funding of Prostate Cancer Research in the Cancer Research Unit at York, by Yorkshire Cancer Research."