“The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) has completely changed medical practice for certain types of tumour,” said Dr Jean Claude Zenklusen, director of TCGA, the largest cancer genomics project in the USA.
Dr Zenklusen, who is in Pune along with his team to train researchers on how to set up an Indian version of TCGA, told The Indian Express that the fight against cancer is still on. “Cancer is complicated and it is a personal enemy,” he said.
“When I was a graduate student a long time ago, we knew so little about cancer… cancer is a personal enemy and still is. An opportunity came by to look at this horrible disease, as I was a post-doc with the human genome project,” said Dr Zenklusen.
“TCGA was authorised in 2006 and pretty much everything we thought was correct in cancer turned out to be wrong. Cancer is very complicated but there are a lot of things we have learnt… the only way one can learn is to accumulate data. When one is not collecting data, there is no science, so we generated data by collecting samples from the North American population…,” said Dr Zenklusen.
As part of TCGA, researchers mapped key genomic changes in 33 types of cancers, including 10 rare forms of the disease. The data is public and available for anyone in the research community to use. “It will be a good effort if India can come out with its version of TCGA as there are genetic differences in each ethnic group,” Dr Zenklusen said.
He is also among the key guests at the TCGA-themed conference and workshop ‘Multi Omics Studies in Cancer – Learnings from TCGA’, which was inaugurated on Saturday. “The technology exists here and samples can be processed in Indian laboratories to create a cancer genomic database that can be accessed by the public,” he said, adding that patient involvement was crucial. “I want the data to be democratised, and not just accessed by cancer researchers… without patient involvement it is difficult to support these kinds of projects,” he said.
According to Professor L S Shashidhara, a developmental biologist formerly associated with the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), the government has already initiated several projects to understand the genomic diversity of the Indian population. He said TCGA was a natural progression after the genome initiative in the country and while individual researchers are being funded, this will be a concerted effort to put it in one central database, so that it can be easily accessed and shared.
Dr C B Koppiker, founder of Prashanti Cancer Care Mission (PCCM) which, along with IISER, has set up the Centre for Translational Research, said they have collected 600 breast cancer samples as part of their project to understand triple negative breast cancer, which is thrice as prevalent in India than in the US.
“Setting up a TCGA-India will help us answer the genome-related question of why breast cancer affects girls at a young age,” said Dr Koppiker.
Anand Deshpande, founder of Persistent Systems, a technology services company and partner of IISER and PCCM, said that they will launch TCGA-India by the year-end. “This will be a public-private partnership supported by philanthropists. The government is supportive. We will initially identify laboratories to train people and get the process rolling, before collecting an estimated 3,000 breast cancer samples from hospitals across the country,” he said.
Dr Santosh Dixit , a senior scientist at PCCM, said that a public talk will be held on Monday while a school outreach programme will be held on September 24. The main focus is also the three-day training of researchers by the TCGA team.