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Reading Cancer’s Genetic Signature

"Cancer death rates in the United States continue to decline." Despite this conclusion, from the recent Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, we are still thought to be losing the war against cancer. Why is this? For one thing, cancer may soon overtake heart disease as the #1 cause of death.

But this is an unfair comparison, writes George Johnson in The New York Times. "Heart disease and cancer are primarily diseases of aging," Johnson observes, adding that we are really talking about a zero-sum game: "Fewer people succumbing to one means more people living long enough to die from the other...Though not exactly consoling, the fact that we have reached this standoff is a kind of success."

Moreover, in measuring progress in this war, we need to appreciate the approach that researchers have adopted, of "fighting and even winning smaller battles," as Johnson puts it. That means reducing and sometimes preventing cancer that occurs in childhood or in the prime of someone's life. Eventually, we all will get it, unless something else gets us first. Cancer, after all, is a condition "deeply ingrained in the nature of evolution and multicellular life." In other words, cancer is fundamentally a disease of the genome. 

Over the past 10 years we have learned to read out that genome, explains Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Studying the sequence of a tumor’s DNA allows us to "gain insights from that tumor with respect to the DNA changes that have led to those cells becoming a cancer," Green tells Big Think in the video below.

This is one of the most notable achievements of The Human Genome Project, Green argues, as the genomes of tumors can be analyzed, providing "a much better way of deciding what types of treatments to pursue." 

The National Human Genome Research Institute, in partnership with the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian, has launched an exhibition called "Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code." 

This multimedia exhibition—on view at the National Museum of Natural History through Sept. 1, 2014—is designed to provide the general public with the most cutting edge information on genomic research and how it impacts human health.

Watch the video here:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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