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Your Body, Your Genes, Our Future

By Elizabeth Jane Walker

DNA Helix

Your body is amazing in its complexity. For starters, it contains more than 30 trillion cells. Every one of those cells has a different job. How does each tiny cell know what to do? It gets its marching orders from a molecule called DNA.

DNA contains sets of instructions called genes. The complete set of DNA and genes is called the human genome.

Genome sequencing involves figuring out the order of four chemical building blocks — called “bases” — that make up the DNA molecule. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs.

Cancer is triggered by harmful changes, called mutations, in the DNA of normal cells.

Since 1962, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has made steady progress in curing childhood cancer. Even so, cancer remains the top killer by disease of children ages 1–14 in the U.S.

Ten years ago, buoyed by the success of the Human Genome Project, our scientists knew the time was right to unlock the mysteries hidden deep within the DNA of childhood cancer. Inspired by generations of children who passed through the doors of St. Jude, we embarked on a voyage of discovery: The St. Jude– Washington University Pediatric Cancer Genome Project.

St. Jude was perfectly poised to take on this massive project, the largest such initiative in the world. The speed of DNA sequencing had recently increased, while costs had decreased. For nearly 40 years, the hospital had stored patients’ tissue samples—awaiting the day when technology would evolve so that those samples could give up their secrets. By comparing the complete normal and cancer genomes of hundreds of cancer patients, scientists could pinpoint the genetic origins of the disease.

Today, scientists worldwide have only begun to explore the vast landscape of data generated by the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project. As researchers make discovery after discovery after discovery, we move inexorably toward a day when—as St. Jude founder Danny Thomas once said—no child dies in the dawn of life.

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