Researchers have called for mass screening of women in their 30s to detect cancer-causing mutations.
Currently, only women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer are offered genetic testing, but Professor Elizabeth Swisher, a medical geneticist at Washington University in Seattle, considers it a 'no brainer' to extend these tests to all women in their 30s.
'Forty percent of women [with mutations] have no family history. So you are basically going to miss out on 40 percent of mutation carriers,' she told attendees of the American Society of Clinical Oncology's annual conference in Chicago.
'Not only are they aggressive cancers, they are early onset so you have lots of years of life to save,' added Professor Swisher.
Approximately 1 in 400 women carry a mutation in their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, which can increase their chance of developing breast cancer by up to 80 percent and ovarian cancer by up to 40 percent. Women who test positive for these mutations can then be offered regular monitoring, or, like Angelina Jolie, if considered to be at high risk may choose to undergo preventative surgery (see BioNews 796).
Although universal screening may prevent up to 2,000 cases of cancer a year, testing positive doesn't automatically mean that breast cancer will develop. Some women may prefer not to know their personal risk, but Professor Swisher argued that it was important they are 'given the option'.
Widespread testing in the UK could cost the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds, but Professor Gareth Evans of the Department of Genomic Medicine at the University of Manchester told the Daily Mail that he believes it to be 'feasible'. 'The cost of the test could be as little as £200 if we are doing it on a massive basis. But you would have to build up capacity and decide what age to do it. You can make a strong rationale for it. But someone has to foot the bill for it,' he said. He added that counselling services would also need to be in place to support the women found to have BRCA mutations.