From the Journals

Global project reveals cancer’s genomic playbook



Mutational signatures

In a related line of research, PCAWG investigators identified new DNA mutational signatures ranging from single nucleotide polymorphisms to insertions and deletions, as well as to structural variants – rearrangements of large sections of the genome.

“The substantial size of our dataset, compared with previous analyses, enabled the discovery of new signatures, the separation of overlapping signatures, and the decomposition of signatures into components that may represent associated – but distinct – DNA damage, repair, and/or replication mechanisms. By estimating the contribution of each signature to the mutational catalogs of individual cancer genomes, we revealed associations of signatures to exogenous or endogenous exposures, as well as to defective DNA maintenance processes,” the investigators wrote.

They also acknowledged, however, that “many signatures are of unknown cause.”

Cancer evolution

One of the six main studies focused on the evolution of cancer over time. Instead of providing a “snapshot” of the genome as captured by sequencing tissue from a single biopsy, consortium investigators created full-length features of the “life history and evolution of mutational processes and driver mutation sequences.”

They found that early cancer development was marked by relatively few mutations in driver genes and by identifiable copy-number gains, including trisomy 7 in glioblastoma, and an abnormal mirroring of the arms (isochromosome) of chromosome 17 in medulloblastoma.

In 40% of the samples, however, there were significant changes in the mutational spectrum as the cancers grew, leading to a near quadrupling of driver genes and increased genomic instability in later-stage tumors.

“Copy-number alterations often occur in mitotic crises and lead to simultaneous gains of chromosomal segments,” the investigators wrote. “Timing analyses suggest that driver mutations often precede diagnosis by many years, if not decades. Together, these results determine the evolutionary trajectories of cancer and highlight opportunities for early cancer detection.”

Implications for cancer care

“When I used to treat patients with cancer, I was always completely amazed and puzzled by how two patients could have what looked like the same tumor. It would look the same under the microscope, have the same size, and the two patients would receive exactly the same treatment, but the two patients would have completely opposite outcomes; one would survive, and one would die. What this analysis … has done is really laid bare the reasons for that unpredictability in clinical outcomes,” Peter Campbell, MD, PhD, of the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton, England, said during the telebriefing.

“The most striking finding out of all of the suite of papers is just how different one person’s cancer genome is from another person’s. We see thousands of different combinations of mutations that can cause the cancer, and more than 80 different underlying processes generating the mutations in a cancer, and that leads to very different shapes and patterns in the genome that result,” he added.

On a positive note, the research shows that one or more driver mutations can be identified in about 95% of all cancer patients, and it elucidates the sequence of events leading to oncogenesis and tumor evolution, providing opportunities for earlier identification and potential interventions to prevent cancer, Dr. Campbell said.

The PCAWG was a collaborative multinational effort with multiple funding sources and many investigators.

SOURCE: Nature. 2020 Feb 5.

Next Article: