16/12/2016 4:38 PM AEDT | Updated 16/12/2016 5:38 PM AEDT

Cancer Project Sees The People, Not Just Their Genetic Mutations

It's big data with a personal touch.

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Cancer affects people of all ages and stages.

Human genomics can reduce a person to an individual string of data -- a code that determines things like eye colour, height and susceptibility to some cancers.

But for pathologist Nik Zeps, an individual is always more than their genome.

"People will not be reduced to the sum total of genetic profile," Zeps said.

We understand we are dealing with people and their lives and needs and wants.Nik Zeps

"We don't refer to them as a KRF mutant, it's Jane Smith, who has two children and a dog and she works full time.

"I think people who work in research around cancer want to retain that humanity about it, we understand we are dealing with people and their lives and needs and wants.

We engage with colleagues who are tasked with taking care of patients who unfortunately will die. We are fully aware of the context we work in."

Zeps is part of the International Cancer Genome Consortium for Medicine, that globally seeks to sequence 200,000 cancer patients' genes and link to clinical trials to accelerate advances in cancer treatments.

The project aims to identify risk factors for specific cancers, develop successful cancer prevention strategies, create new tests for earlier and better match treatments with cancer types and lifestyle factors.

It's a lofty bunch of goals but Zeps said genomics gave more data than ever imagined.

"It's an enabling technology that is accelerating the way we do things greatly," Zeps said.

"A lot of it is doing really painstaking observations like people did in the past. Charles Darwin went to the Galapagos and he observed how a bird's beak is different in one island to the next. He brought it all together to discover these variations in finches.

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People who've had cancer have an insight into what should be researched.

"In many respects, we're doing the same thing. We're gathering information on a broad spectrum of cancers and then we'll go back and try and piece it all together."

Zeps said the project brought in the experience of people who've had cancer.

"The big change in the last five or six years is an increasing emphasis on having research guided by people who have had cancer," Zeps said.

"This way, we know we're actively engaged in work that matters to the patients."