In an effort to build a comprehensive catalog of genetic causes of cancer, researchers from Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Broad Institute as well as Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have identified more than 760 genes that cells from multiple types of cancer depend on for growth and survival. The findings were published in Cell.

About 10% of those genes are common across multiple cancer types and would be key targets for new therapies that would have the greatest impact on the global cancer burden.

The researchers also generated biomarker-based models to explain the biology behind 426 of the 769 cancer-dependent genes. They fell into four broad categories:

  • Mutations of a gene
  • Loss of a copy or reduced expression of a gene
  • Increased expression of a gene
  • Reliance on a gene functionally or structurally related to another lost gene

More than 80% of the biomarker dependencies were associated with a change in a gene’s expression rather than a mutation. Mutations accounted for only 16% of the biomarker-associated dependencies, even though mutations are often used as support for pursuing a gene as a drug target. Genes previously identified as drug targets were associated with 20% of the dependencies.

The researchers said that their findings “provide a starting point for therapeutic projects to decide where to focus their efforts.”