Skip to main content
An official website of the United States government

History of NCI’s Center for Cancer Genomics

Major milestones of NCI's Center for Cancer Genomics involve early cancer genomics research, a new era of team science, and building modern genomics resources.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) established the Center for Cancer Genomics (CCG) in 2010 to develop and apply molecular characterization technologies to better understand cancer and to improve the diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients.  

However, cancer genomics research at NCI started long before CCG was officially formed. A few key NCI-supported programs helped establish cancer genomics as a field and the important role NCI plays in the research community. 

The scope of CCG’s research has since grown alongside the rapidly developing fields of large-scale molecular characterization and computational analysis tools. Today, CCG continues to develop genomic tools and resources with the research community in mind. 

Early Cancer Genomics Research

Before the Human Genome Project was completed, researchers knew that understanding cancer on a molecular level would be key to understanding the disease and enabling the development of new therapies. In 1996, NCI founded the Office of Cancer Genomics to examine molecular changes in cancer cells and to create and collect data and reagents to bolster the research community.  

One example of an early-stage genomics program was the Mammalian Genome Collection (MGC), established by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NCI. As a necessary step to understand and utilize the information encoded in the human genome, MGC set out to provide an accurate and publicly accessible full-open reading frame (ORF) clone corresponding to each human and mouse protein-coding gene. Importantly, the project aimed to produce a resource that would be publicly available without restriction.

TCGA & TARGET: A New Era of Team Science

In the 2000s, NCI set out to catalog and discover major cancer driver genes—or the genomic alterations that cause cancer—in large cohorts of human cancers. In 2005, The National Cancer Advisory Board’s working group on biomedical technology recommended initiating a “Human Cancer Genome Project.” Later that year, NCI and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) held a workshop, “Toward a Comprehensive Genomic Analysis of Cancer”, on implementing a pilot phase of the Human Cancer Genome Project. By year end, NCI and NHGRI had launched the pilot phase of The Cancer Genome Atlas to study lung, brain, and ovarian cancers.

NCI also sought to determine the genomic changes that drive pediatric cancers, many of which have poor survival rates and involve particularly harsh treatments. NCI established the Therapeutically Applicable Research to Generate Effective Treatments (TARGET) initiative with pilot studies of acute lymphoblastic leukemia and neuroblastoma, two high-risk cancers. Working with the Children’s Oncology Group, TARGET has made discoveries on several childhood and adolescent cancers that have led to clinical trials.

These pilot projects grew into full-scale projects, eventually characterizing over 40 types of cancers over the span of 12 years. The size and scope of TCGA and TARGET required an unprecedented level of collaboration and coordination. In addition to involving multiple NIH institutes and centers, the projects required the teamwork of disease specialists, biospecimen collection and repository experts, molecular technology experts, numerous types of data analysts, cancer biologists, and more. These projects also required the trust of the thousands of patients who chose to contribute their samples to research.

TCGA and TARGET showed that such massive projects could be successful, providing valuable resources for the cancer research community that continue to be used today.

Building Genomic Resources for the Community

With the continuing efforts of TCGA and TARGET and other genomics projects in the pipeline, NCI established the Center for Cancer Genomics in 2010 to oversee genomics programs and initiatives. A major goal has been to build on the lessons learned from TCGA and TARGET and investigate how the alterations contribute to cancer. To this end, CCG has developed many functional and computational programs to help researchers make biological insights.

The Cancer Target Discovery and Development (CTD2) program was the first functional genomics program coordinated by NCI, convening a network of researchers to discover and validate potential therapeutic targets.

In the computational space, CCG has launched and continues to build the Genomic Data Commons (GDC), the first dedicated repository for primary genomic sequencing data from cancer biopsies. The GDC is dedicated to the open sharing of genomic data and associated clinical data with the research community, enabling reanalysis of these data using GDC computational resources and download of the primary data. In addition to being a platform for sharing and analyzing molecular data, the GDC strives to make genomics accessible for researchers of all backgrounds. The GDC is comprised of the genomic data from NCI’s large genomic initiatives, such as TCGA and TARGET, but also houses foundational cancer genomic data provided by other efforts in the cancer research community.

CCG continues to sequence or molecularly characterize cancer samples, including childhood and rare cancers that are still poorly understood. Importantly, CCG is aiming to collect a rich profile of genomic features of tumors that influence the response to therapy and clinical outcomes, which will be critical for understanding how we can improve the survival of cancer patients.

In addition to building public genomics resources, all of CCG’s work aims to facilitate progress towards precision medicine, where patients can be provided the most effective therapy based on the specific features of their disease.


Date Event
1996 NCI Establishes the Office of Cancer Genomics
1997 NCI announces the Cancer Genome Anatomy Project, one of the first gene catalogs available to researchers via the internet
1999 NIH and NCI establish the Mammalian Genome Collection
2002 NCI creates the Initiative for Chemical Genetics
2003 Completion of Human Genome Project
2005 Launch of The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) cancer characterization project
2005 Launch of Therapeutically Applicable Research to Generate Effective Treatments (TARGET) childhood characterization project
2010 NCI establishes the Center for Cancer Genomics
2010 Launch of the Cancer Target Discovery and Development (CTD^2) Network
2015 Drs. JC Zenklusen (NCI) and Carolyn Hutter (NHGRI) recognized with People’s Choice Award at the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals for their work leading TCGA
2016 Launch of the Genomic Data Commons (Press: Cancer Letter interview, The Washington Post, MIT Technology Review)
2016 Launch of the Human Cancer Models Initiative (HCMI) (Press: Science NewsNature News)
2018 TARGET publishes Pediatric Pan-Cancer Analysis (NIH Director’s Blog)
2018 The Pan-Cancer Atlas marks completion of TCGA (NCI Press Release)
2020 Study of “Exceptional Responders”, patients with unexpected and long-lasting response to treatment (NCI Press Release)
2020 TCGA Project Team receives the AACR Team Science Award

If you would like to reproduce some or all of this content, see Reuse of NCI Information for guidance about copyright and permissions. In the case of permitted digital reproduction, please credit the National Cancer Institute as the source and link to the original NCI product using the original product's title; e.g., “History of NCI’s Center for Cancer Genomics was originally published by the National Cancer Institute.”