UK launches genetic testing programme for cancer patients

The Wellcome Trust in the UK has launched a research programme that would allow all cancer patients to have access to genetic testing. with £2.7 million in funding.

The programme, involving the Institute of Cancer Research, London, The Royal Marsden, the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics and Illumina Inc, is aimed at finding a way to allow more cancer genes to be tested in more people.

The probability of a person getting cancer rises significantly with mutations in some genes, referred to as cancer predisposition genes.

Though scientists can identify around 100 cancer predisposition genes, in the UK, testing for these genes, however, is rather limited.

Identification of gene mutations was now quicker and available at a reasonable cost than ever before thanks to recent advances in methods for reading the genetic code, called sequencing.

According to scientists, it was now possible to transform cancer gene testing and to improve the health consequences of several cancer patients as well as their families.

According to professor Nazneen Rahman, lead researcher of the programme and head of genetics at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) and the Cancer Genetics Clinical Unit at The Royal Marsden, it was very important to know if a mutation in a person's genetic blueprint had caused their cancer. She said it allowed more personalised treatment, as for example such people were often at risk of getting another cancer and might choose to have more comprehensive surgery, or might need different medicines, or extra monitoring.

For example, a patient with colon cancer might choose to have a large section of their bowel removed, rather than only the tumour, if it turned out they were at very high risk of colon cancers and would likely develop more later in life.

Around 2 per cent of all cancers were down to such genetic changes, but it varied hugely between cancer types. In ovarian cancer, 15 per cent were due to a genetic predisposition to developing tumours.

According to professor Martin Gore, the medical director of the Royal Marsden, this would be "an exciting change of practice", which patients were ready for.

He said patients wanted to know and he was asked several times a day, whether this was hereditary. He said there was no point pretending that patients did not want to know.

However, professor Gore warned this was a new idea, so any downsides to testing, such as how families might deal with the extra information, remained unknown.

Finding out whether a cancer was caused by these genes also allowed family members to be more aware of their risk.