"This is a landmark, this is the first time we've had the complete DNA instruction book, of a cancer cell," said Dr. Francis Collins, the former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.
Richard Wilson, a Ph.D. at the Washington University School of Medicine said: "We found 10 changes; 10 mutations in her tumor genome that may very well be related to her disease."
This may revolutionize the most advanced type of cancer treatments, called targeted therapies.
Right now, targeted therapy involves attacking cancer cells, but not normal cells. For example, the drug Herceptin works by selectively attacking a receptor found on the surface of breast cancer cells.
In the patient with leukemia, scientists went past the surface of the cell, all the way to the center - or nucleus - and examined the DNA, the blueprint for the entire body. By comparing DNA from the patient's cancerous blood cells with DNA from her own normal skin, the researchers found changes present in genes of her leukemia, but not in the genes of her skin.
"What's new here is that this entire encyclopedia of a cancer cell, which is 400 Encylopedia Britannicas lined up end to end, has actually been read out for the first time for a particular leukemia," Collins said.
On The Early Show Saturday Edition, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chairman of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health, home to the Cancer Genome Atlas Project,
"The ultimate hope is that you would look at someone's DNA and you'd say 'I know how to treat you based what I found in your genes,'" Wilson said. "'And why you are different than the patient I saw with the same disease an hour ago.'"
The hope of truly personalized medicine is what drove researchers to study the inner-workings of cells.
"Cancer is a disease of the DNA, and we need to understand what goes wrong at the level of DNA, before we can really get good at understanding, diagnosing, and better treating the disease," Wilson said.
"It will result in a revolution in medicine that I believe will only be matched by the discovery of antibiotics," Collins said.
It took about seven years and $300 million to sequence the first human genome. Over the next few years, it's predicted to take only minutes and cost less than $1,000.
For now, it's still a research tool, and cancer patients shouldn't expect immediate treatments. But doctors hope it will have real-life applications within the decade.