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2018 Annual Report

VAN ANDEL RESEARCH

VAN ANDEL RESEARCH INSTITUTE SCIENTISTS HELP CREATE CANCER “ATLAS” RESEARCH Just as a map (or these days, a GPS) can help you get to your destination, a new comprehensive atlas is helping scientists hit the mark when it comes to more accurately classifying cancers. In April, The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) Research Network, an initiative spearheaded by the National Institutes of Health, published its final batch of 29 studies detailing precise — and often subtle — molecular variations in 33 major types of cancer. The findings are the result of more than a decade of work by scientists in the U.S. and abroad, including Institute investigators Dr. Peter W. Laird and Dr. Hui Shen, and already are impacting how cancers are classified and studied. “TCGA’s findings have greatly deepened our molecular understanding of the major cancer types,” Laird said. “It is our hope that this work will serve as a guide for scientists who plan to harness TCGA’s robust data to develop new, more personalized methods of patient care.” This research, which represents the initiative’s capstone, joins dozens of other papers that have been published since TCGA’s inception in 2005. Collectively, they provide a highly detailed description of molecular changes occurring in all major human cancers along with insights that could revolutionize cancer treatment. “It is our hope that this work will serve as a guide for scientists who plan to harness TCGA’s robust data to develop new, more personalized methods of patient care.” — Dr. Peter W. Laird Major takeaways include: Cancers should be classified based on genetic, epigenetic and molecular differences. Historically, cancers have been categorized and named based on the organ or tissue in which they arose — for example, cancers that start in the esophagus have been called esophageal cancers and were believed to have a lot in common with other cancers found in the esophagus. TCGA’s findings urge a shift away from this view, based on new insight into the incredibly complex factors that influence and differentiate one cancer from another. In short, this means that a cancer found in the lower part of the esophagus may actually have more in common with a stomach cancer than other esophageal cancers. Better classifying cancers is a game-changer for cancer research and treatment. When it comes to combating cancer, the old adage, “Know thine enemy,” is incredibly apt. Not only do the specific characteristics identified by TCGA reveal new vulnerabilities that can be targeted by future medications, but they also may help simplify treatment decisions today. For example, if physicians know that an individual’s cancer is marked by a certain characteristic, they can choose medications designed specifically for that subtype and avoid other treatments that are better suited for another subtype. Working together is the way forward. TCGA’s work was a massive, decade-long undertaking that required the time and talent of hundreds of scientists from around the world, who painstakingly analyzed more than 10,000 samples from 33 different cancer types. None of this would have been possible without an extraordinary level of cooperation, teamwork and a singular dedication to creating a resource that may revolutionize cancer research and treatment. “Team science endeavors like TCGA are the future,” Laird said. “By sharing resources, expertise and data, we were able to do more together than we ever could have apart.” DR. PETER W. LAIRD DR. HUI SHEN 24 | VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE ANNUAL REPORT 2018 VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE ANNUAL REPORT 2018 | 25

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