NEW YORK — More than 200 researchers investigating colon cancer tumors have found genetic vulnerabilities that could lead to powerful new treatments. The hope is that drugs designed to strike these weak spots will eventually stop a cancer that is now almost inevitably fatal once it has spread.
Scientists increasingly see cancer as a genetic disease defined not so much by where it starts — colon, liver, brain, breast — but by genetic aberrations that are its Achilles’ heel. And with a detailed understanding of which genetic changes make a cancer grow and thrive, they say they can figure out how best to mount an attack.
They caution that most of the drugs needed to target the colon cancer mutations have yet to be developed, but they say they are building the road map that they hope will lead them to such treatments.
The colon cancer study, published Wednesday in Nature, is the first part of a sweeping effort that is expected to produce a flood of discoveries for a range of cancers. The colon cancer findings will soon be followed by studies of lung and breast cancers and, later this year, of acute myeloid leukemia. The $100-million-a-year Cancer Genome Atlas project is being financed by two government agencies, the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute.
The colon cancer results, based on a study of 224 tumors, show what may be possible.
‘‘There are so many different ways that you can attack this tumor type,’’ said Raju Kucherlapati, the principal investigator for the colon cancer project and a professor of genetics and of medicine at Harvard Medical School. ‘‘We have an opportunity to completely change the landscape.’’
Researchers caution, though, that although much is known about the genetic changes that occur in colon cancer, treatment has not caught up.
‘‘It is going to take time and effort,’’ said Dr. Charles Fuchs, a gastrointestinal cancer specialist at Harvard who was an author of the study. ‘‘I don’t want to minimize the singular importance of this paper. It is transformative.’’
Researchers have studied colon cancer before and identified mutations that seemed critical, but their work lacked the scope of the new project, and it provided more limited information on genetic changes, said Dr. Sanford Markowitz, a Case Western Reserve University colon cancer and genomics specialist.
About 150,000 Americans receive a diagnosis of colon or rectal cancer each year, and about 50,000 die annually.