Deciphering the Cancer Transcriptome

April 1, 2016
Deciphering the Cancer Transcriptome
An increasing number of clinicians are adding the cancer transcriptome to their precision medicine program. They have found that the transcriptome is important in identifying clinically impactful results. [iStock / DeoSum]

Richard A. Stein, M.D., Ph.D.

In recent years, scientists have adopted a gene-centric view of cancer, a tendency to see each malignant transformation as the consequence of alterations in a discrete number of genes or pathways. These alterations are, fortunately, absent from healthy cells, but they pervert malignant cells.

The gene-centric view takes in molecular landscapes illuminated by genomic and transcriptomic technologies. For example, genomes can be cost-effectively sequenced within hours. Such capabilities have made it possible to interrogate associations between genotypes and phenotypes for increasing numbers of conditions, and to collect data from progressively larger patient groups.

As genomic and transcriptomic technologies rise, they reveal much—but much remains hidden, too. Perhaps these technologies are less like the sun and more like the proverbial streetlight, the one that narrows our searches because we’re inclined to stay in the light, even though what we hope to find may lie in the shadows.

“Each individual study that looks at the cancer transcriptome is impressive and tells a convincing story, but if we put several high-quality papers together, there are very few genes that overlap,” says Henry H. Heng, Ph.D., professor of molecular medicine, genetics, and pathology at Wayne State University. “This shows that something is wrong.”

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