Neil Hayes, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Cancer Research at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, is one of two principal investigators for a $1.8 million grant that extends the work of The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), a groundbreaking multisite project to understand cancer at its molecular level through genome sequencing and extensive data analysis.
The grant from the National Cancer Institute, which extends over five years, is a computational grant to continue to analyze the genetics of cancers, with many of the cases coming from patients treated in some of the most-important recent clinical trials, Dr. Hayes said. In this way, the new project advances the research beyond identification toward understanding interactions of cancer genetics and therapeutics, as measured through the samples.
Dr. Hayes, division chief of Hematology and Oncology and assistant dean for Cancer Research in the College of Medicine at UTHSC, shares co-principal investigator duties with Katherine A. Hoadley, PhD, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The total funding for the project is split equally between the two universities.
“This is the most-recent version of cancer genomics projects directly descended from TCGA,” said Dr. Hayes, who was one of the investigators on The Cancer Genome Atlas, which began in 2006 and formally ended in 2018. A flagship team science effort of the National Institutes of Health and the National Human Genome Research Institute, The Cancer Genome Atlas has published findings identifying genomic changes or mutations in cells of 33 types of cancer by analyzing more than 20,000 specimens. Researchers from a dozen or more institutions across the country built a network to complete the project, and have published their findings in more than 200 papers in prestigious scientific journals.
Dr. Hayes, the Van Vleet Endowed Professor in Medical Oncology at UTHSC, was a leader of a site at the University of North Carolina that conducted the sequencing of RNA, which controls abnormal genetic expressions in cancer cells. He was recruited to UTHSC in 2017. More than 15 years after his original work on the TCGA, he remains enthusiastic about the continued potential of cancer genomics in patient health.
“In the beginning, we were really out in the wilderness as far as the cancer genome,” Dr. Hayes said. “We were describing all kinds of abnormalities in human tissues that had transformed from normal to cancer. In many ways, it was a process of generating a list of all the ways in which a normal cell could go wrong. With more-recent versions of TCGA, including the one we were just awarded, we have more of an opportunity to take the lessons of the last 15 years and see how each of those abnormalities explains why some patients respond to cancer treatments and others do not.”