Forty years after the mutant genes that cause the deadliest cancers were discovered, drugs that target them could be approved
In the early 1980s, Channing Der was just beginning his career as a scientist at Harvard Medical School when he happened upon a discovery that would change the course of cancer research. At the time, the holy grail of cancer biology was discovering so-called oncogenes – genetic switches that can turn a normal cell into a cancer cell – in the genomes of tumours. But while teams of scientists had thrown everything at it for the best part of a decade, their efforts had proved fruitless. One by one, they were beginning to accept that it might be a dead end.
Der found himself assigned to test 20 different genes that had been identified as possible oncogene candidates. His question was simple: did any of them actually exist in tumours in a form that was different from normal cells?