Researchers map genes to better treat cancer

Jones hopes to develop personal therapies for different patients. - Momo Lin
Jones hopes to develop personal therapies for different patients. - Momo Lin
Jones hopes to develop personal therapies for different patients. – Momo Lin

Cancer cells of the same kind may not look the same for all patients, according to new research coming out of SFU.

Steven Jones, an SFU professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, and Marco Marra, an SFU alumnus, are working together at the BC Cancer Agency to understand how an individual’s diseased cells differ from patient to patient.

The researchers are currently working on a project to map the human epigenome, a part of cells that allows the genomes — “the recipe books of the DNA,” according to Jones — to be read properly.

When epigenomes interpret the genomes within a cell’s DNA, they gather a better understanding of what makes a specific cell unique, and what doesn’t. Jones’ recipe book analogy continued on to explain that an epigenome “knows the important parts of a [specific] cell, and [knows] the parts of the recipe it shouldn’t be using.”

In simpler terms, the epigenome indicates “a way of organizing the information, and a way for the cell to organize the ways that the information is being used.”

When they began the project, some of the technology Marra and Jones are reliant on today wasn’t yet available. They attribute the project’s recent success in part to new rapid DNA sequencing devices that they use to understand the strands of DNA they are analyzing.

The main goal of their project is to gain a more in-depth understanding of how human cells work, and how the cells, specifically the epigenomes, change in a diseased cell. To do this, they study both healthy and diseased cells, and meticulously map the similarities and the differences.

Gathered from their research, a fact that may mark a new development in how cancers are treated in the future, is that “though two of the same cancers seem very similar, there might be very different ways in which they’ve changed their biology,” said Jones.

In other words, two patients with the same type of cancer could have completely different cancers, ones that should be treated as such.

With these answers in hand, Jones says they can begin to develop “personal therapy, where [they] can tailor the drugs [they] give a patient to the chemical makeup or biology of their particular tumour.”

Jones and Marra hope their research will contribute to a greater understanding and the eventual treatment not only of cancer, but of other diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s.