(CBS News) In a research milestone, the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project released the entire genomes of 520 normal and cancerous tumor tissue samples in the hopes that the information could help researchers combat childhood cancers.
More than 10,000 children are diagnosed with a childhood cancer each year, according to the National Cancer Institute, and more than 1,500 kids will die. The causes of childhood cancers are largely unknown, but leukemias and cancers of the brain and central nervous system account for more than half of cases.
The newly released genomic data more than doubled the volume of high-coverage, whole genome data currently available from all human genome sources combined. The information is valuable not just to cancer researchers, but also to scientists studying almost any disease, the researchers said.
"This effort has generated more discoveries than we thought possible," Dr. James Downing, the scientific director of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Mephis, Tenn. who leads the project, said in a news release. "We want to make this information available to the broader scientific community so that, collectively, we can explore new treatment options for these children. By sharing the information even before we analyze it ourselves, we're hoping that other researchers can use this rich resource for insights into many other types of diseases in children and adults."
The Cancer Genome Project launched in early 2010 and will cost $65 million for its three-year span. St. Jude is covering $55 million of the cost, and it's one of the first major privately funded genome sequencing projects to share it's data as soon as it becomes available. Researchers hope to sequence 1,200 genomes by the project's end.
The 520 genome sequences are matched sets of normal and tumor tissue samples from 260 patients with pediatric cancer. Researchers at St. Jude's Children Hospital are analyzing the genomic sequences to determine the differences between each child's normal and cancerous cells to pinpoint the causes of more than a half-dozen of the most deadly childhood cancers, an effort which has already produced a number of key discoveries reported in top scientific journals. The latest data was published in the May 29 issue of Nature Genetics.
What's unique about this approach is the most genome sequencing initiatives focus only on specific genes, which make up a small portion of the genome. The researchers for the project sequenced all the DNA in each patient's tumor, providing a more complete picture of DNA changes underlying the development and progression of childhood cancers.
"This approach has been more valuable that anyone could have predicted," said Dr. Richard K. Wilson, director of The Genome Institute at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "We have identified unusual, 'cryptic' changes in many patients' cancer cells that we would not have found using other methods. We are pleased to be able to share this data with the research community in hopes that others can build upon our initial discoveries."
But cancer treatments created from this information will take more research, the authors said.
Downing told TIME, "We need to start by getting it out into the hands of everybody in the scientific field - not only those in cancer research - so they can use it both as reference and as a discovery tool, and find new things that we have yet to find."