What is the CGMT Centre of Excellence at IITM?

Today, India lies on the verge of a cancer epidemic. Pancreatic Cancer (PDAC) is one of the most aggressive forms of cancer and has the fourth highest mortality of all cancers. WIthin a decade it is projected to rise to second place. Medical advances in early diagnosis and therapy have managed to make only incremental improvements, but have had little consequence in the overall outcome of treatment. The lack of specific genome diagnostic markers, and accurate tissue diagnosis, coupled with poor response of PDAC to treatment contribute to its exceptionally high mortality. The non-specific nature of its symptoms make early detection challenging, hence the centre’s primary objective is research on molecular pathology of PDAC and identification of early biomarkers through multiomic analysis of 75 pancreatic cancers.

One significant challenge faced today is the lack of large-scale genomic sequencing data for the Indian diaspora. Current databases extensively cover Western populations which may not be applicable for diagnosis of cancer here due to lack of genomic diversity. The Centre has partnered with Childs Trust Hospital in Chennai to gather samples from 55 children with paediatric leukaemia over the past 3 to 4 years on a monthly basis. Comprehensive analysis of these samples would help the team gain insights into reasons behind remission and recurrence of cancer. The results from this analysis would be made publically available as a national cancer database with the aim to facilitate development of tailored diagnostic and treatment approaches for Indian patients.

Biomarkers defined by the cancer database will be instrumental in the development of real time quantitative PCR and sequence based early diagnosis kits. The project also aims to identify drug targets for pancreatic cancer and paediatric leukaemia for development of novel anti-cancer therapeutics. Successful replication of human organs may offer alternatives to animal models currently in use and outcomes of the project can be extended to other cancers prevalent in India, potentially leading to the establishment of startups and industrial collaborations on cancer therapeutics and diagnosis.

Through industrial, academic and international collaboration the CoE has made leaps towards its goals and more. On the international front, it has collaborations with the likes of Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Australia on cancer genomics, Omics Data Automation, USA on generation of databases, and University of Mainz in Germany for cancer pathogenesis. Industrial collaboration with Bristol Myers Squibb on novel drugs for identification of paediatric leukaemia, Indivumed, Germany on cancer tissue collection and automated pathology would enhance the visibility of the CoE globally and attract potential investors and collaborators. MOUs with numerous institutions including the Indian Academy of Pediatrics as well as established international educational programs and conferences project the CoE as one of the leaders of novel cancer research.

With an ever increasing cancer incidence rate, most pharmaceutical companies are on the lookout for Indian-specific genomic data. Results obtained from the program will greatly impact the largest of populations in the Indian subcontinent.