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How we can use our DNA to beat cancer


Dr Nirupa Murugaesu

Clinical Lead for Molecular Oncology, Genomics England

Taking a better look at the information inside us may be the way to fighting not just cancer, but a whole host of hereditary conditions.

While genome sequencing may sound like something from Dr Who, you may be surprised to know that these technological advances are relied upon more and more in the NHS.

Take the fight against cancer, using a simple blood draw and biopsy, so much more information than ever before can be derived about our body.

Cancerous cells ‘cloak’ themselves from the body’s immune system

Recent scientific discoveries have found that some cancerous cells are able to ‘cloak’ themselves and evade the body’s immune system. Better understanding of complex mutations in some cancers, using genome sequencing, allows cancer doctors to better identify certain forms of cancers that are less able to avoid the immune system and those patients who might benefit from additional or alternative treatments.

Scientists analyse the DNA of a tumour

By taking a biopsy of a tumour and examining its DNA you can begin to discover its genomic makeup. When matched with the DNA found in your own blood, scientists simply subtract what appears as ‘normal’, to discover the type of mutations the tumour harbours. This ability to drill down and study this tumour information is what Dr Nirupa Murugaesu, Clinical lead for Molecular Oncology at Genomics England, believes will soon be more widely available in NHS Trusts. She recognises, however, that there are some changes to be made first. “We need education and training within labs to ensure we are preserving our samples in a genomic-friendly way.

“Advancements in technology enhances our knowledge in diagnosing different forms of cancer, how to treat those forms of cancer based on their genomic characteristics and even whether a patient could be at risk of developing that cancer again in the future. When having a genomic test, the tumour sample that is obtained during the patient’s cancer journey is studied, along with a consultation to inform you of the potential findings and agree your consent,” she says.

We can now identify patients who might be at risk of hereditary cancers

“Thanks to advancements in genome sequencing, we can now identify groups of patients who may be at risk from hereditary cancers by analysing genetic markers and with further research identify more groups of people who may be at increased risk of developing cancer. With cancer, it’s all about catching the disease early enough to treat it.”

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