The first detailed map of genetic faults that cause cancers is published today, offering profound insights into the disease.
The map describes more than 20 “genetic signatures”, or patterns of mutation, that alone or in combination drive 30 different types of cancer, including brain, lung, pancreas and breast tumours.
Most cancers are thought to be caused by mutations in DNA, perhaps triggered by chemicals or radiation, which go unrepaired and build up over a person’s lifetime. The mutations eventually lead to the uncontrolled spread of cancerous cells .
The causes of around half the genetic signatures behind cancers are understood, but the rest are a mystery. Scientists believe they may be due to chemicals in the environment, or faults that arise during ageing.
The findings are expected to drive research into the causes of mutations behind each cancer.
Nic Jones, chief scientist at Cancer Research UK, said: “We know that environmental factors like smoking and overexposure to UV rays can cause faults in DNA which can lead to cancer, but for many cancers we don’t know what triggers the faults. The genetic fingerprints identified in this fascinating and important study identify several new processes driving the development of cancer. “