New scheme to routinely test patients for inherited cancer genes

In collaboration with the Press Association

A new research programme will lay the foundations for routine testing for inherited cancer genes in patients with the disease.

Changes in certain genes, known as cancer predisposition genes, greatly increase the chances of a person developing cancer. Knowing whether a patient carries such a gene can affect decisions as to how treat them.

There are almost 100 known cancer predisposition genes, but at present testing for them in the UK is done on an ad hoc basis, with patients referred to a genetics service if they are suspected of having an 'inherited' cancer.

Under the new Mainstreaming Cancer Genetics programme, initially involving patients with breast or ovarian cancer patients at the Royal Marsden in London, screening for cancer predisposition genes will be done routinely.

The genetic testing will be managed by the patient's cancer doctor, rather than by referring them to a genetics clinic. It will be rolled out to patients with other cancer types over the next few years.

The ultimate aim is to develop a 'toolkit' to share with other parts of the NHS, allowing them to set up similar services for patients.

The programme is being led by a team at The Institute of Cancer Research, in partnership with The Royal Marsden, Illumina Inc, and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, which provided £2.7m of funding.

Professor Nazneen Rahman, head of genetics at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), said it was "very important" for doctors to know if a inherited change in a patient's genetic blueprint had caused their cancer.

Testing allows for more personalised treatment, since a patient with a cancer predisposition gene may face a higher risk of developing a subsequent second cancer.

Knowing they have the gene gives them the option of having more comprehensive surgery, taking different medicines, or receiving extra monitoring.

The screening programme could also provide useful information about the cancer risks of a patient's relatives.

"Sometimes a relative is found to also have an increased risk of cancer and screening or preventative measures can be employed," Dr Rahman added.

"Just as frequently, testing provides the reassuring news that a relative is not at increased risk of cancer and does not need interventions."

The new programme will use a new test, developed in conjunction with Illumina Inc, that takes advantage of new sequencing methods.

The TruSight Cancer panel can analyse 97 cancer predisposition genes within a few weeks for the cost of a few hundred pounds and will be ready for use in the clinic in 2014.

Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK's chief clinician, said researchers now have a wealth of information about the inherited gene faults that increase a person's cancer risk, and this knowledge can help tailor treatments for patients whose cancers are linked to these mutations.

"This exciting new initiative will help embed genetic testing into routine NHS cancer care, and hopefully allow more cancer patients to benefit from such testing - and more personalised care - in the future," he added.

Patients will be tested for inherited faults in their body's DNA that might be linked to their cancer, rather than faults in the tumour itself.

That will complement initiatives such as Cancer Research UK's own stratified medicine programme, which aims to analyse the faulty genes driving a patient's tumour, paving the way for doctors to tailor treatments to their type of cancer.

"Together, these programmes will help revolutionise the way cancer is managed in the NHS, and bring forward the day when all cancers are cured," Professor Johnson added.

Copyright Press Association 2013