Q&A: Understanding our Cancer Genomics Laboratory Moon Shot platform
MD Anderson Staff
MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program™ is designed to reduce the time it takes to move promising cancer discoveries into the clinic, where they can help patients the most. The program focuses resources around 13 cancer types, called Moon Shots™, with the goal of using the knowledge we gain to advance treatment of all types of cancer.
But how do researchers make cancer discoveries? And how do they know which discoveries are the most likely to have a major impact for patients? That’s where the Moon Shots Program’s Cancer Genomics Laboratory platform comes in.
We spoke with Maggi Morgan, scientific manager, to learn more about the platform and how it impacts cancer research and treatment. Here’s what she had to say.
What is the Cancer Genomics Laboratory?
The Cancer Genomics Laboratory platform is a research lab that drives discovery and understanding of how tumors grow, spread and evolve. Our team provides researchers with data that may, in the future, guide personalized cancer treatment strategies and has the potential to make a significant impact on the detection, management and treatment of cancer.
What is genomics, and how is it used in cancer research?
Your complete set of DNA is called your genome. Almost every cell in your body, including a cancer cell, contains a copy of the 3 billion DNA base pairs, or letters (A, T, G and C), which string together to make up the genome. Genomics is the detailed study of these sequences of DNA that make up the genome.
Cancer is caused by small changes in sequences of DNA. These changes are called mutations, which accumulate over time and can turn a healthy cell into a cancerous cell.
We use genomics to characterize the mutations that lead to cancer, or its progression, to help us find new ways of detecting, monitoring and treating cancer.
How does the platform support the Moon Shots Program?
Our platform specializes in a sophisticated technique called “next-generation sequencing,” which we use to determine the exact order of the DNA base pairs of healthy and/or cancerous cells.
The sequencing information gathered from this powerful technique can help researchers find mutations, genes and pathways that may be linked to cancer. This knowledge allows them to focus their efforts on specific cancer-related genes that may be able to be exploited to help us detect cancer earlier and treat it more effectively.
To date, we’ve sequenced the genomes of more than 7,500 patient samples, some of which were collected from patients before, during and after their participation in Moon Shot™ clinical trials. We’ve also published our findings so that this information can be accessed by cancer researchers around the world.
We support all of the Moon Shot teams and multiple platforms, including the Adaptive Patient-Oriented Longitudinal Learning and Optimization (APOLLO). We also work alongside a bioinformatics team to ensure that the sequencing data we provide is used appropriately and to its maximum potential. All of this data is stored in a “big data” warehouse so that it can be accessed and used by cancer researchers throughout MD Anderson.
How does the platform contribute to our mission of ending cancer?
The platform helps uncover the underlying changes in the genome that drive the growth and spread of cancer. The data we collect may inform new avenues for cancer detection and treatment.
For example, by sequencing the DNA in a tumor before and after treatment, researchers may be able to learn how cancer adapts and potentially becomes resistant to treatment. Researchers may be able to apply this knowledge to improve treatment options, or develop new treatment strategies. We’re currently performing studies like this in collaboration with the Breast Cancer Moon Shot™ team.
Where do you see the platform in five years?
Currently, the gold standard for getting high quality genomic sequencing data is through fresh biopsy tumor tissue. These biopsies are usually collected through a surgical procedure, which adds risk and discomfort for the patient.
I think it’s feasible that minimally-invasive methods of collecting tumor samples, such as liquid biopsies, will be available in the near future. Minimally-invasive biopsies will give our platform the ability to characterize a tumor’s genome through a simple blood draw. This may enable us to use non-invasive methods to screen for early-stage cancers, monitor how patients respond to treatment and help explain why some cancers are resistant to certain therapies.
Is there anything else you want patients and caregivers to know?
I would like patients and caregivers to know that I am not only an MD Anderson employee, but a former caregiver. I also have a family member still being treated by one of our Moon Shot doctors. Having walked in the caregiver footsteps, I strive every day to make a difference in MD Anderson’s mission to end cancer. Everyone within the platform, and the Moon Shots Program as a whole, is driven to help our patients because of their own personal connections to cancer and MD Anderson.