Childhood cancer is the leading cause of death from disease among children over the age of one in the U.S. Cure rates remain below 50 percent. Washington University in St. Louis is partnering with St. Jude Hospital in Memphis to change that.

A researcher works on a sequencer to analyze DNA at Washington University.

A researcher works on a sequencer to analyze DNA at Washington University. (Photo courtesy of Washinton University School of Medicine.)

Washington University has one of the three largest genome centers in the nation. That’s where this new DNA project begins.

Director of the Genome Center at Washington University Rick Wilson says testing will be done on tumor samples from more than 600 children who are patients at St. Jude.

The $65 million dollar project to find a genome-wide understanding of cancer offers promise for developing diagnoses and treatments, hopefully leading to prevention.

“There are only a small number [of genome centers] in the U.S.,” Wilson says. “We consider us to be the best.”

The other two centers are in Boston and Houston.

Scientists will sequence the entire genomes of both normal and cancer cells from each patient, comparing differences in the DNA to identify genetic mistakes that lead to cancer.

“We are on the threshold of a revolution in our understanding of the origins of cancer. For the first time in history, we have the tools to identify all of the genetic abnormalities that turn a white blood cell into a leukemia cell or a brain cell into a brain tumor,” says Dr. William E. Evans, director at St. Jude. “We believe it is from this foundation that advances for 21st century cancer diagnosis and treatment will come.”

The samples to be tested date to the 1970s and includes more than 50,000 tumor, bone marrow, blood and other samples.

Wilson says the project focuses on the most fatal of childhood cancers: leukemias, brain tumors and sarcomas, which are tumors of bone, muscle and other connective tissues.

Prior research indicates genetic abnormalities in childhood cancers differ from those in adult cancers.

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Jessica Machetta reports [Download / listen Mp3, 1:18]