Yale Cancer Research Focuses on Drivers and Passengers

Yale study finds passenger mutations could help explain 10% of cancer cases
driver and passenger in car

A new analysis of the entire genomes of 2,658 people with 38 different types of cancer have identified mutations in 179 genes and gene regulators as “drivers” variations in DNA sequences that lead to the development of cancer.

While these ‘drivers’ accounted for a large percentage of the cancer cases analyzed, they did not explain all.

Announced by a team of Yale University researchers on February 20, 2020, this innovative work is part of the Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes project, one of the most comprehensive cancer genomics studies to date, including several by Yale faculty.

According to a related Yale press release, some scientists, including Yale’s Mark B. Gerstein, Ph.D., now believe that to capture a more panoramic view of cancer progression, they need to pay more attention not only to classical genetic drivers. 

But also to “passengers” — the thousands of non-driver mutations that constitute the overwhelming majority of mutations observed in a typical cancer genome. 

Historically, scientific consensus has held that these play no role in tumor growth.

“Many of these mutations can have small individual effects but an appreciable cumulative effect, on cancer development,” said Dr. Gerstein, the Albert L. Williams Professor of Biomedical Informatics; professor of molecular biophysics & biochemistry, of computer science, and of statistics & data science; and senior author.

Dr. Gerstein, Sushant Kumar, an associate research scientist in Gerstein’s lab, and colleagues decided to consider the role of “passengers” in cancer development. 

In the paper published in Cell, these Yale researchers report on experiments intended to show whether passenger mutations could help explain the 10 percent of cancer cases in which researchers found few or no clear genetic drivers. 

They found that a subset of passengers has a significant impact on genomic regions — often as much impact as drivers — and collectively can have an appreciable effect on tumor growth.

Understanding the genetic roots of how cancer cells form from healthy cells, replicate, and migrate to different organs and how this process varies between tumor types and between individuals is crucial for devising new strategies to combat cancer, one of the leading causes of death worldwide.

The Yale team also conducted a focused, statistical analysis of 8 different cancer types, detecting a cumulative effect of passengers on the development of these cancers beyond that which could be explained by drivers alone. 

Overall, their analysis showed an additional 9 percent contribution of the passengers in predicting whether a given sample was indeed cancerous.

Dr. Gerstein stressed that some of these passenger variants can actually help hinder cancer development, as opposed to triggering tumor growth. 

Understanding the full role of passengers could help scientists develop therapies precisely targeted to the individual mutations in a particular person’s cancer genome, the authors concluded.

Yale media contact Bess Connolly: [email protected], 203-432-1324.

Cancer vaccine news published by Precision Vaccinations.