The discovery, published overnight in Nature, one of the world’s leading scientific journals, could help to treat and prevent a wide range of cancers.
The team analysed 7,042 tumours and identified 21 distinct mutational signatures and the cancer types in which they occur.
Professor Sean Grimmond, from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience, said that different mutation-causing processes left different genetic ‘signatures’ in cancer cells.
“All cancers are caused by genetic mutations, and in some cases we know the processes driving them, for example, tobacco smoking in lung cancer, however, our understanding of the causes of mutation in most cancers is remarkably limited,” Professor Grimmond said.
“This study allows us to pinpoint the root genetic cause of tumour development in common cancers and, in some cases, to identify the biological process that damages the DNA and gives rise to the cancer.”
“For example, we found that a family of enzymes known as APOBECs, which can be activated in response to viruses, is linked to mutations in more than half of the 30 cancer types.”
All of the cancers contained two or more signatures, reflecting the variety of processes that contribute to cancer development.
Professor Andrew Biankin from the Garvan Institute and the University of Glasgow said some of the mutational signatures are found in multiple cancer types, while others are confined to a single cancer type.
“Twenty-five of the 30 cancers we examined had signatures that arose from mutational processes related to ageing,” Professor Biankin said.
“Childhood cancers showed the fewest mutations whereas cancers that were caused by exposure to known carcinogenics such as tobacco and UV light had the highest prevalence of mutations.
“It is likely we will be able to identify more mutational signatures as more cancers are sequenced and the analysis of these data is further refined.”
The study was led by Ludmil Alexandrov and Professor Sir Mike Stratton from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in London.
“We have identified the majority of the mutational signatures that explain the genetic development and history of cancers in patients,” said Ludmil Alexandrov, first author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. “We are now beginning to understand the complicated biological processes that occur over time and leave these residual mutational signatures on cancer genomes.”
Australian authors included Professor Biankin and Professor Grimmond; Dr Nic Waddell and John Pearson from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience; Professor Sunil Lakhani from UQ Centre for Clinical Research; and Dr Marina Pajic from the Garvan Institute.
We wish to acknowledge the clinicians, scientists and participants of the Australian Pancreatic Cancer Genome Initiative (APGI) who have made this research possible. We would also like to thank our funding bodies which include the NHMRC, Cancer Council NSW, the Cancer Institute NSW, the Avner Nahmani Pancreatic Cancer Foundation and The Philip Hemstritch Fellowship in Pancreatic Cancer Research. Please refer to APGI website (http://www.pancreaticcancer.net.au/apgi/collaborators) for a detailed list of contributors.
The Garvan Institute of Medical Research was founded in 1963. Initially a research department of St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, it is now one of Australia’s largest medical research institutions with over 600 scientists, students and support staff. Garvan’s main research areas are: Cancer, Diabetes & Obesity, Immunology and Inflammation, Osteoporosis and Bone Biology and Neuroscience. Garvan’s mission is to make significant contributions to medical science that will change the directions of science and medicine and have major impacts on human health. The outcome of Garvan’s discoveries is the development of better methods of diagnosis, treatment, and ultimately, prevention of disease.
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The Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) is a research institute of The University of Queensland that aims to improve quality of life by advancing personalised medicine, drug discovery and biotechnology.
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About The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is one of the world’s leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease.
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