OncoTrack, “Methods for systematic next generation oncology biomarker development”, is an international consortium of over 80 scientists, that has launched one of Europe’s largest collaborative academic-industry research projects to develop and assess novel approaches for identification of new markers for colon cancer. This unique five year project brings together top scientists from European academic institutions offering a wide range of expertise, and partners them with pharmaceutical companies.


The goal of OncoTrack is to identify and characterize biological markers that will help our understanding of the variable make-up of tumours and how this affects the way patients respond to treatment. We shall use cutting edge laboratory-based genome sequencing techniques coupled to novel computer modelling approaches to study both the biological heterogeneity of colon cancers (i.e. patient to patient variability) as well as  tumour variation within the patient – for example, by comparing primary tumours with metastases.

We believe that the results of this research will allow the identification and qualification of a set of biomarkers that may be used to guide patient therapy, provide immediate feedback upon the effects of treatment and ultimately indicate likely outcome of disease management – i.e. Oncology Tracking!


The basic general mechanisms of cancer are already well known. We can describe cancer as a class of diseases in which groups of cells display uncontrolled growth, invade and destroy adjacent tissues, and ultimately spread or metastasize to distant sites in the body. Although new drugs, therapy regimes and surgical interventions are constantly being developed; even newer, targeted therapies typically only help a small fraction of patients – most therapies offering only an interim solution and failing to irrevocably stop the cancer spreading.


One of the hallmarks of cancer is genetic instability. This means that over time, tumours accumulate groups of cells with markedly different biological properties from the progenitor tissue. A growing tumour therefore evolves and typically contains a mixture of cell types whose dependence on the multitude of biochemical pathways that trigger, aid or support tumour growth, is variable. Most cancer therapies fail because of this progressive variability:  the therapy is unable to kill all the different cells in a tumour. 

In theory at least, if one could catalogue all of these potential pathways and identify key genes involved in the pathway one could very much more accurately describe an individual cancer. This would then enable one to better predict a patient’s prognosis, to design a unique “tailored therapy” reflecting their disease and afflicted pathways, monitor the performance of the therapy and adjust as necessary.

In short – individualised diagnosis, optimised therapy – personalised healthcare.

From a pharmaceutical company viewpoint there would also be significant benefits: Clinical trials of targeted therapies could be performed more quickly and effectively upon a smaller number of patients, selected on the basis of their unique biological characteristics. 


At the heart of this project is a large scale deep sequencing program. The starting point is the selection of high quality, clinically well defined tissues (blood & biopsy samples) from patients with colon cancer. This will enable the direct comparison of the genome of the patients’ tumour with that of its metastases.

In conjunction with information on the tumour methylome and transcriptome, it will provide a substantially complete description at the genetic level of the molecular changes accompanying development of the primary malignancy and subsequent metastatic events. 


The project is based on the premise that this genetic and epigenetic information, combined with a description of the molecular pathology of the tumour, will allow us to generate a more accurate in-silico model of the cancer cell. This will facilitate the identification of predictive markers that can be used to guide the optimal therapy strategy – at the level of the individual patient – and will also provide on-going prognostic guidance for the clinician.

This project will not only advance our understanding of the fundamental biology of colon cancers but will provide the means and approach for the identification of previously undetected biomarkers – not only in the cancer under study, but potentially also in other solid cancers and in doing so open the door for personalised management of the oncology patient.