Newswise — BETHESDA, MD – June 18, 2012 -- “In cancer, the genome is shot to hell," Columbia University cell biologist I. Bernard Weinstein, M.D., famously said in 1989. Since then, researchers have catalogued the mutations that drive many human cancers. But since cancer takes years to develop, experiments on shorter-lived species have been critical in developing new diagnostics and therapeutics. Scientists who work on human cancer and those who use other species as stand-ins for humans will get together June 17-20, 2012 at the Genetics Society of America’s (GSA’s) Model Organism to Human Biology (MOHB): Cancer Genetics Meeting at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Unlike a single-gene disease inherited through either sperm or egg, the genetic changes of cancer strike somatic (from the Greek “soma” meaning “body”) cells including those cells that make up internal organs. In affected organs, these somatic cells may have an underlying susceptibility mutation present. Once a cancer begins, an oncogene, a gene that has the potential of causing cancer, is turned on or a tumor suppressor turned off and other changes ensue. The changing nature of cancer explains why treating the disease requires staying steps ahead.

“Animal models have been instrumental for working out the pathways through which all human solid tumors form. Current knowledge of cancer genes is a tribute to the basic research that has been performed over the past four decades, the majority of it in model systems,” Bert Vogelstein, M.D., director, Ludwig Center at Johns Hopkins University and Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute said. Dr. Vogelstein, a keynote speaker at the MOHB: Cancer Genetics Meeting has identified the sequence of genetic changes behind colorectal cancer.

Looking at the big picture, Eric Green, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and another speaker at the MOHB: Cancer Genetics meeting said, “Cancer is a disease of the genome. The more knowledge we gain about the structure and function of genomes, the more we will be able to learn about the genomic changes responsible for different types of cancer.”

The cancer-genome connection is why NHGRI began partnering with the National Cancer Institute in 2005 to create The Cancer Genome Atlas, which will describe the genomes of 20 cancer types.

Quite a varied group of organisms have taught us about human cancers, explained Phil Hieter, Ph.D., (University of British Columbia), President of the GSA, “Each model organism has its own advantages and disadvantages for the study of a particular process. The aggregate is much more powerful, so it makes great sense to shuttle among species in studying the mechanisms and mutations associated with cancer. That’s what this conference is all about.”

Thanks to evolution, the cancers of model organisms reflect derangement in many of the same genes and pathways that fuel human cancers. The model organism Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (modENCODE) project, begun in 2009, is identifying the genetic controls of two popular model organisms: the roundworm Caenhorhabditis elegans and the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. “ModENCODE has greatly advanced our knowledge of genome function in model systems, which is foundational knowledge for deciphering the biological consequences of cancer-associated genomic changes,” said Dr. Green, who will discuss it at the meeting.

The mini-modENCODE Symposium being held at GSA’s MOHB: Cancer Genetics Meeting will be followed by a symposium on June 20-21 hosted by NHGRI at the NIH campus to celebrate the project’s accomplishments as it draws to completion this year. For more information about the NHGRI symposium, please see ABOUT THE MODEL ORGANISM TO HUMAN BIOLOGY MEETING: The GSA MOHB Meeting has been held every other year since 2006. The GSA Board of Directors developed this meeting to enable basic research scientists studying genetic diseases in model organisms and scientists studying these diseases in humans to have a forum for discussion of their findings and to forge collaborative investigations.

ABOUT GSA: Founded in 1931, the Genetics Society of America (GSA) is the professional membership organization for scientific researchers, educators, bioengineers, bioinformaticians and others interested in the field of genetics. Its nearly 5,000 members work to advance knowledge in the basic mechanisms of inheritance, from the molecular to the population level. GSA is dedicated to promoting research in genetics and to facilitating communication among geneticists worldwide through its conferences, including the biennial conference on Model Organisms to Human Biology, an interdisciplinary meeting on current and cutting edge topics in genetics research, as well as annual and biennial meetings that focus on the genetics of particular organisms, including C. elegans, Drosophila, fungi, mice, yeast, and zebrafish. GSA publishes GENETICS, a leading journal in the field and an online, open-access journal, G3: Genes|Genomes|Genetics. For more information about GSA, please visit Also follow GSA on Facebook at and on Twitter @GeneticsGSA.