What is omics?
Omics is an exciting emerging field of science that encompasses large-scale data-rich biology, including genomics, epigenomics, exomics, proteomics, transcriptomics, and metabolomics. The discipline refers to the collection of technologies used to quantify and characterize various biological molecules, to gain a deeper understanding of their role, function, and relationships with other molecules within the cells of a living organism.
Omics is important because it offers a window into how the body works and a fine-grain level, which helps reveal key information about how disease establishes and progresses, how drugs work, and which factors facilitate or hinder their efficacy. Overall, omics is emerging to be a vitally important field of science that is already leading to improving diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for several diseases. In particular, cancer research stands to benefit greatly from the advances in this field.
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Using data to understand cancer
Cancer research has achieved remarkable advancements in recent decades; however, the exact mechanism by which tumors initiate themselves remains elusive.
While some cancers now have relatively good survival rates (e.g., melanoma, testicular and prostate cancer), many types of cancer still have dismal outcomes, with mesothelioma, pancreatic cancer, and brain cancer representing the cancers with the lowest five-year survival estimates (7.2%, 7.3%, and 12.8%, respectively).
It is well established that genetics play a role in cancer. However, we do not fully understand the relationship between genes and the initiation and progress of cancer. The Human Genome Project, which identified all genes in the human genome for the very first time, opened the door to the field of omics. Now, scientists are using omics methodologies to gather vast amounts of biological data to characterize tumors, identify therapeutic targets, and develop accurate precision medicine.
Identifying genetic mutations with omics
DNA mutations are a hallmark of cancer. These genetic changes underlying the disease are either inherited (estimated to account for 5-10% of cancer) or acquired (due to environmental exposures). Different mutations impact the nature of the disease differently. For example, mutations in the BRCA are known to give tumors a growth advantage and facilitate cancer development. Therefore, identifying these mutations in patients is vital to driving treatment decisions.
There are also mutations known as 'passenger mutations'. These genetic code alterations are important but do not drive tumor growth directly. Instead, they deregulate cell metabolism, promote metastasis, and stimulate cell growth. Also, their exact role in cancer is largely unknown.
In the last few years, DNA mutations and changes in gene expression have become better-identified thanks to next-generation sequencing. Omics methodologies, including epigenomics, proteomics, transcriptomics, and metabolomics, are gathering the vital data needed to understand the disease more deeply. Now, scientists are seeing the value of combing data from the different omics areas to gather rich data sets from which they can derive key information about the nature of tumors. This new field is called multi-omics, and it is helping to drive cancer research.
The advent of multi-omics
Multiomics refers to the integration of data from distinct omics groups and combining this data during analysis. As a result, multiomics can accurately identify matching geno-pheno-envirotype relationships and associations.
This cutting-edge approach is redefining the precision oncology paradigm. The current standard of the genome-focused approach is transitioning to a more holistic and comprehensive approach that gives a more thorough view of the tumor microenvironment.
Exploring more than one type of omic data can expand the list of molecular differences associated with cancer. This is helping scientists to identify important disease biomarkers, those that can elucidate key aspects of the disease process and give vital nights into the biological pathways involved in cancer. Individual fields of omics are insufficient in revealing these causal relationships between cancer and certain molecular signatures. It is integrated approaches that have the power to uncover causative relationships. With this knowledge, we can understand the variability in how patients respond to treatment, one of oncology's biggest challenges.
In the long-term, omics and multi-omics approaches will, if successful, provide detailed data on molecular phenotypes, which will be used to stratify patients and deliver improved, personalized treatments. Because of multi-omics research, scientists have a clearer and clearer view of how cellular dysfunction contributes to cancer. In the future, it is hoped that this data will allow us to classify people in terms of the best and most effective treatment plan for them. This will revolutionize cancer care and help it to overcome one of its biggest challenges.
Multiomics is revolutionizing research, here’s why
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- Lu, M., Zhan, X. (2018). The crucial role of multiomic approach in cancer research and clinically relevant outcomes. EPMA Journal 9, 77–102. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13167-018-0128-8
- Vucic, E.A. et al. (2012) "Translating cancer 'OMICS' to improved outcomes: Figure 1.," Genome Research, 22(2), pp. 188–195. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1101/gr.124354.111.