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Lancet Oncol. 2016 Feb;17(2):e52-e61. doi: 10.1016/S1470-2045(15)00386-1.

Rare cancers: a sea of opportunity.

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Department of Molecular Oncology, British Columbia Cancer Agency, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Department of Oncology, Queen's University, Kingston, ON, Canada.
Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, British Columbia Cancer Agency, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Department of Molecular Oncology, British Columbia Cancer Agency, Vancouver, BC, Canada; Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Electronic address:


Rare cancers, as a collective, account for around a quarter of all cancer diagnoses and deaths. Historically, they have been divided into two groups: cancers defined by their unusual histogenesis (cell of origin or differentiation state)--including chordomas or adult granulosa cell tumours--and histologically defined subtypes of common cancers. Most tumour types in the first group are still clinically and biologically relevant, and have been disproportionately important as sources of insight into cancer biology. By contrast, most of those in the second group have been shown to have neither defining molecular features nor clinical utility. Omics-based analyses have splintered common cancers into a myriad of molecularly, rather than histologically, defined subsets of common cancers, many of which have immediate clinical relevance. Now, almost all rare cancers are either histomolecular entities, which often have pathognomonic mutations, or molecularly defined subsets of more common cancers. The presence of specific genetic variants provides rationale for the testing of targeted drugs in rare cancers. However, in addition to molecular alterations, it is crucial to consider the contributions of both mutation and cell context in the development, biology, and behaviour of these cancers. Patients with rare cancers are disadvantaged because of the challenge of leading clinical trials in this setting due to poor accrual. However, the number of patients with rare cancers will only increase as more molecular subsets of common cancers are identified, necessitating a shift in the focus of clinical trials and research into these cancer types, which, by epidemiological definitions, will become rare tumours.

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