How our genes will change cancer

Doctors, researchers and audience gather at breakfast to learn about genetics, data and how working together will help beat cancer.

The time is 8:15. Many have started to file in and shuffle to their seats while chatting and occasionally sipping their first morning coffee. As it starts to quiet down, the lights are dimmed, the audience wake up and the breakfast meeting begins.

An air of seriousness with a hint of respect changes the atmosphere, and the audience watches as the first guest speaker steps in and introduces the concept of genes and their relation to cancer.

– Cancer is brought on by errors in our genes. Most of the time, cancer is a result of the unlucky, says Borge, who is the director at the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board.

This is the start of his talk on genes and cancer, where the audience is introduced to that which defines us most: DNA, the molecule of life.

To the moon and back
– 20,310 recipes in our genetic material. 2 meters of DNA in every cell. 10 Billion cells, of which 20 billion meters of DNA is found. If you do the math, astonishingly it amounts to 26,015 trips back and forth to the moon, Borg says, as he shows us a visual representation on the powerpoint slide. (See video in Norwegian.)

It’s this incredibly long strand of genetic material where things can go horribly wrong. If there’s a genetic error, or mutation in the DNA that happens to take place between the double helix and if there’s enough errors, cancer happens. This is the unfortunate fate for many of us.

– However, we may not have come a long way in finding the ultimate cure for cancer, but what we have accomplished is the ability and possibility of analysing, and ultimately predicting, cancer through genome sequencing, Borge says.

It was the best of times…
This message, as a central theme to the breakfast meeting taking place, shines a hopeful light in an otherwise frightful and serious subject. With genome sequencing, or list of our genes, scientists and doctors will have greater accuracy to predict genes that are potential carriers, and highly susceptible to, different cancers.

However, this requires a large amount of genome sequences: we need an army of genome data.

From terminal to chronic
To set further example, the next speaker to take the stage is oncologist Odd Terje Brustugun. He stresses the importance of personalized treatment for lung cancer patients, even those with metastatic cancers. These patients can be tested today to see if they are viable to receive new kinds of treatmemt, such as targeted therapy. This was the case for lung-cancer patient, and survivor for five years, Kari Grønås.

Kari Grønås was able to participate in a clinical study. She was treated with targeted therapy instead of the ordinary treatment for lung cancer patients at that time: chemotherapy.

– I feel I have gone from feeling like I have a terminal disease to a chronic one, she says from the podium.

Beating cancer: the story of us
This personalized approach is arguably what worked for Kari, setting the example and potential for the future. If we can analyse our own genes for potential cancer, then we are both able to prevent and provide personalized medicine catered to the individual. This is why genome sequencing is important for the future.

However, this cannot be done alone. To get a representable treatment for the individual, we need data. And data does not come reliably from one individual, but from the many.

– It is not your genes that are the key for tomorrows cancer research, it is ours. It is collaboration where large amounts of data and correlation will give us the knowledge that ensures the right path towards the future. A future with better cancer treatment for all, says Ole Johan Borge.