Whether there is a change to a cell can be measured by gene expression – the way the cell uses genetic information to make things like proteins, for example. Yet, until recently, cancer research lacked methods to identify and understand how specific mutations drive gene expression in patients’ tumours.
A BC Cancer Agency researcher has found a new way to address this challenge. Dr. Sohrab Shah – Canada Research Chair in Computational Cancer Genomics – and his colleagues recently published new research in the journal Nature Communications that analyses both gene mutation and gene expression in the cells of human tumours.
In order to do this, the researchers developed a new computational method to analyze both sets of data, which were provided by the Cancer Genome Atlas project. They analyzed over 3000 tumours to determine how mutations in various cancers affect gene expression.
“We found that we were able to separate mutations that were driving functional changes in cancer cells from mutations that were not,” says Dr. Shah. “This is important because we can use this information to reveal the mutations that are likely causing changes in the biological processes of cancer cells.”
Which is exactly what they found: certain specific mutations showed clear evidence of disrupting a cell’s normal biological processes.
“This method helps us understand, identify and pinpoint key mutations to focus on for developing novel therapeutics,” he says. “It will allow us to greatly refine the set of targets that could be used for new cancer treatment.”
Going forward, carefully controlled clinical studies will be needed to establish the benefit of using this technique to inform treatment options for cancer patients.
The paper, Systematic analysis of somatic mutations impacting gene expression in 12 tumour types, is freely available from Nature Communications, here