U Embarks on National Study of Bone Cancer in Children

University of Minnesota researchers have received a $1.7 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to lead the largest study to date on the causes of pediatric osteosarcoma. Osteosarcoma, which affects the long bones of the arm or leg, is the most common type of bone cancer in U.S. children. Each year about 400 children are diagnosed with the disease.

Medical School pediatrician Logan Spector is head of the four-year study. SPH biostatistician Tracy Bergemann will direct the statistical aspects. She will analyze the DNA of 500 children with osteosarcoma and their parents. The aim is to identify the genes related to bone growth to determine if they have a role in causing the cancer. For each of the 1,500 sets of DNA, Bergemann will analyze 250 genotypes in conjunction with three different lifestyle variables: diet, physical activity, and sun exposure. She will also study how the genes interact with each other. Because cancer is a complex disease, it is most likely caused by genes that interact with other genes at the cellular level. Bergemann’s previous work has led to a method on how to pinpoint genes that interact with others. She’s discovered that the closer together two genes are on the chromosome, the more likely they are to be inherited through generations–and the less likely they are to interact in tandem with other genes.

Bergemann won’t know how many of the 250 genotypes she selects will prove to be factors in osteosarcoma until she receives the study data. “Will it be two genes, will it be eight, we don’t know,” she says. In the meantime, she’s designing statistical models to single out the genes that are most likely to be culprits.