Treasure Trove of Cancer Clues

Scientists have discovered a 'treasure trove' of clues about the causes of cancer - findings that could improve patient diagnosis and treatment.

Graphic of a DNA signature

In the biggest study of its kind, scientists at the University of Cambridge used whole genome sequencing to analyse the DNA of 12,000 cancer patients in England.

Researchers were able to identify 58 new mutational signatures (patterns in the DNA of cancer), suggesting there are causes of cancer that we don’t yet fully understand. Their findings were published in the journal Science.

“Mutational signatures are like fingerprints at a crime scene, they help to pinpoint cancer culprits,” said Professor Serena Nik-Zainal, who led the research. It's the first time it has been possible to detect patterns in cancers’ DNA which, in turn, opens up the possibility of personalised treatments.

As well as improving our understanding about the causes of cancer, mutational signatures can lead to improved treatments. “They can highlight abnormalities that may be targeted with specific drugs, or may indicate a potential ‘Achilles heel’ in individual cancers,” added the professor.

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “This study shows how powerful whole genome sequencing tests can be in giving clues into how the cancer may have developed, how it will behave and what treatment options would work best.”