Cancer researchers in Würzburg, in cooperation with the international
Cancer Genome Atlas Research Network, have identified new genetic drivers of adrenal cancer.
Würzburg was the center of coordination of the European scientists.
Research teams from 39 institutions in Europe, Northern America, Southern America and
Australia have collected and examined 91 adrenal cancer samples. They have performed a
comprehensive genomic analysis as part of the "Cancer Genome Atlas Research Network."
The results were published by the scientists in the journal Cancer Cell. The
European researchers of the worldwide project were coordinated from Würzburg.
Twofold increase of known genetic drivers
The study names several new genes that lead to the development of cancer. Actually the
study resulted in doubling the number of known genetic drivers.
"These data have implications for the diagnosis and prognosis of adrenal cancer. They
allow us to look deep into the biology of the disease and to understand how these new
gene mutations contribute to adrenal tumor formation and the progression of the
disease," says Professor Martin Fassnacht, Head of Endocrinology at the Würzburg
University Hospital and European coordinator of the study.
Collaboration was the key to this project. Adrenal cancer affects only an average of two
in every million people worldwide per year. Because it is so rare, one institution just
won't see enough patients to generate meaningful research. "We've been working on
building adrenal cancer networks since 2003," says Professor Fastnacht.
In 2003, the Center of Endocrinology and Diabetology of the Würzburg University Hospital
initiated the creation of the German Adrenocortical Carcinoma Registry, which was
integrated into the first European Network for the Study of Adrenal Tumors in 2009. That
is why the Würzburg team and their European partners signed on immediately when the
Cancer Genome Atlas Research Network announced the investigation of adrenal cancer as
its first project on rare types of cancer.
A new understanding
The study revealed several interesting findings, says Dr. Silviu Sbiera, one of the
participating scientific hormone researchers from Würzburg. One of the most exciting
mutations was found in gene "ZNRF3." Up to 20 percent of the adrenal cancer samples
examined have a mutation of this gene.
Furthermore, the study demonstrated that mutations that were involved in benign diseases
of the adrenal cortex may play a role in the development of adrenal cancer.
Another key finding was that many adrenal tumors undergo whole genome doubling: "A
phenomenon in which each chromosome in the gene replicates and creates a second copy,"
says Dr. Sbiera. This reflects instability of the cancer genome, which is particularly
prominent in adrenal cancer.
"If we understand the mechanisms of how it happens , this will ultimately help us
discover new therapies," says Martin Fassnacht, who leads further clinical studies on
Future treatment advances
The researchers identified three different subtypes of adrenal cancer based on their
molecular changes. These subtypes were associated with different survival rates of
patients, which suggests that molecular biomarkers could be used to identify patients
who are likely to have a more aggressive form of the disease. These patients may thus
benefit from a more precisely matched therapy.
"Our findings represent the most complete characterization of adrenal cancer tissues and
could be the key to a more successful therapy," says Dr. Sbiera.
"Open Source" results
The complete data set from this project is published in freely accessible databases, so
that they are available to any researcher worldwide for identifing potential new ideas
to better understand this type of cancer.
The "open source concept" is especially important for adrenal cancer specialists. Adrenal
cancer survival rates are dismal because it is often diagnosed in late stages of the
disease. Also, no new treatment options have been developed since the 1970s because the
disease is so rare.
"We are very motivated to continue our research on the basis of these new findings,
because they have an enormous potential. The conclusions drawn from this paper will help
fuel discovery in adrenal cancer as well as in other types of cancer," Fassnacht
This project was funded by the European Research Area Network for Research Programmes on
Rare Diseases, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the German Research
Foundation and the University of Würzburg's Interdisciplinary Center for Clinical