The Genetic Roots of Cancer

The origins of a cancer are hidden in a child’s DNA. Using new technologies, St. Jude is revealing these genetic beginnings and developing new cures.

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Read how unique, large-scale research initiatives and clinical programs at St. Jude are driving landmark discoveries and bringing a new kind of precision care to our patients.

Discovering Cancer's Origins

Cancer begins when changes in DNA trigger cells to grow out of control. Through the Pediatric Cancer Genome ProjectSt. Jude and Washington University in St. Louis have pinpointed the DNA changes behind some of the toughest childhood cancers. 

The project has resulted in a wealth of new discoveries revealing the genetic Achilles heels of pediatric cancers. The Pediatric Cancer Genome Project has been named as one of TIME magazine's annual Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs. This project is sparking innovative clinical trials to test new treatments for children.

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Featured Research: A Benchmark Defined

New research led by St. Jude has established a benchmark in the pediatric cancer field. By looking at the genetic makeup of 1,120 children with cancer, investigators found that nearly one out of 10 had been born with an increased genetic risk for the disease. They also discovered unexpected links between adult cancer genes and childhood disease.

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A New Clinical Frontier

Each child is unique, and every cancer is different. As the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project continues to drive basic research on the genetics of cancer, St. Jude is launching an ambitious new program to apply its powerful technologies where they are needed most: the bedsides of our patients.

The vision of the new program is to use technology called genome sequencing to carefully scrutinize every one of the 3 billion letters of the genetic code of patients and their cancers. When analyzed with advanced computing technology, the results can be used to accurately identify a cancer and find its genetic vulnerabilities. These results can also show if the patient was born with an increased risk for cancer.

Bringing large-scale genome sequencing out of the research lab and into the clinic is a massive endeavor. Using the technology in patient care requires deep expertise, state-of-the-art facilities, and focused, mission-driven research, all major strengths of St. Jude.

This technology offers the promise of true precision medicine, in which treatment and long-term care can be tailored for each child. 

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Featured Clinical Trial: Genomes for Kids

St. Jude patient Juan

Genomes for Kids (G4K) is a new St. Jude clinical research study designed to lay the groundwork for transforming childhood cancer therapy. Through this novel study, researchers hope to learn more about childhood tumors, how genome sequencing might help predict a tumor's response to treatment, and the best ways to share the test results with families.

One of the first patients to enroll is 10-year-old Brendan Obioha, who is undergoing leukemia treatment at St. Jude. Using genome sequencing, researchers will examine his DNA for changes in cancer-related genes. Brendan’s mom Anita says, “Children don’t deserve to have cancer. If we don’t do these studies, there’s no way we can move forward.”

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Understanding Cancer Risk

A child can be born with an increased genetic risk for cancer. For some children, this happens by chance; for others, the risk is passed down from their parents.

To help children and families with a genetic risk of cancer, St. Jude established the Hereditary Cancer Predisposition Clinic. It is one of the first programs of its kind for children with cancer.

Through the clinic, patients and families work closely with a team of doctors, geneticists and genetic counselors. The team helps families understand their cancer risk, get appropriate testing and make decisions to help them stay healthy.

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Featured Article: Cancer in the Family Tree

When 10-year-old Megan Vess received a cancer diagnosis in 2012, she was rushed to St. Jude to begin treatment. Further tests revealed that Megan had an extremely rare genetic condition that had made her at risk for cancer.

By working with the St. Jude Hereditary Cancer Predisposition Clinic, Megan and her family have learned the best ways to manage her health over a lifetime. They also learned that future siblings would be at risk of inheriting the same genetic condition, and found themselves facing a decision.

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