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  • 15 to 20% of breast cancer patients suffer a type of the disease that could benefit from the drug Herceptin
  • Herceptin is very effective and normally administered for 12-months but it is expensive and can cause heart damage
  • New research has found that the treatment period for Herceptin could be reduced from 12-months to 6 without compromising outcomes
  • A 6-month course would reduce the cost of the drug, increase access and potentially reduce the number of patients suffering debilitating side effects
  • The research findings reignited broader concerns about the sustainability of cancer care and the competing interests of patients, producers and providers
  • Herceptin’s patents are expiring and biosimilars are entering the market which is expected to lower costs and increase access
 
After 20 years of the cancer drug Herceptin is less more?

Findings of a phase III clinical study funded by UK government grants and presented at the June 2018 meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) suggest that the time a patient needs to spend on Herceptin, (chemical name trastuzumab), a drug widely used to treat an aggressive form of breast cancer, could be halved from 12 to 6 months. This would save insurers, governments, healthcare providers and patients significant sums of money and possibly reduce the incidence of side effects, which can include heart problems.
 
In this Commentary
 
This Commentary: (i) summarizes the findings of the clinical study and some expert reactions to it and (ii) describes the different subtypes of breast cancer and the drug trastuzumab.  The Commentary also broaches a broader concern about the escalating costs of life-saving or life-extending cancer therapies, which show no sign of either slowing or reversing. According to ASCO, in the US, newly approved cancer drugs cost on average US$10,000 per month, with some costing as much as US$30,000 per month. This causes financial hardship for many American patients and their families. In the UK, which has a large devolved public healthcare system, cancer therapies are a postcode lottery because medicines that patients receive depend on whether their local healthcare provider can afford them. In emerging economies, where the prevalence of breast cancer is rising, only a privileged few breast cancer patients have access to trastuzumab. Notwithstanding, patients should gain some comfort from Herceptin’s patents expiring and biosimilar versions of trastuzumab entering the market, which is expected to make the drug cheaper and more accessible.  
 

Breast cancer and HER2

Breast cancer is a heterogenic disease and biomolecular changes in breast cancer involve the expression of genes. The disease is classified according to the 4 subtypes of genes expressed: (i) luminal A, which accounts for 51 to 61% of all breast cancer patients, (ii) luminal B, which accounts for 14 to 16%, (iii) basal-like, which accounts for 11-20% and (iv) the HER2 subtype, which accounts for 15 to 20% of all breast cancer patients and is the focus of this Commentary. Each subtype has different clinical features, different prognoses and different responses to therapies. HER2 protein overexpression is the result of amplification of the HER2 gene and is associated with aggressive tumour growth and consequent high rates of recurrence and mortality in patients. HER2-positive breast cancer is not inherited but is a somatic genetic mutation, which occurs after conception and therefore the new DNA does not enter the eggs or sperm.
 
Trastuzumab the first gene targeted drug
 
Trastuzumab was first approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1998 and became the first FDA-approved therapeutic antibody targeted to a specific cancer-related molecular marker. The FDA recommended that the drug should be administered for 12 months. Robert Leonard, formerly Professor of Cancer Studies at Imperial College London, UK, and a consultant medical oncologist specialising in breast cancer at the BUPA Cromwell Hospital, the London Clinic and the London Oncology Clinic describes HER2 positive breast cancer and trastuzumab: see video below.  “We like to talk about targeted therapies since we’ve learnt more about the basic biology of cancer, which uses subtle techniques of investigation including biological and immunological profiling of cancers. We now have the ability for new molecules to target specific abnormalities in cancer cells and these can be effective in sublimating standard breast cancer treatments. A good example are Herceptin and Lapatinib, both of which target the HER2 pathway, which is a very important pathway in breast cancer,” says Leonard.
 
Trastuzumab and advanced breast cancer
Trastuzumab’s approval followed 4 randomized clinical studies involving more than 8,000 patients with stages II or III HER2-positive breast cancers. These showed that when trastuzumab was administered for a period of 12 months in combination with or after chemotherapy agents, it potentiated the efficacy of chemo- and immunotherapy; reduced the risk of breast cancer recurrence by approximately 50% and significantly improved survival. In 2000, trastuzumab's use for advanced breast cancer was approved in Europe and has since been approved in a number of countries outside Europe. In 2002 the UK government’s watchdog, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), endorsed the use of trastuzumab for advanced HER2 breast cancer.



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Trastuzumab and early stage breast cancer
Shortly afterwards, trastuzumab expanded its use to early stage HER2 breast cancer. Findings of 2 papers in the October 2005 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), suggested that following initial interventions, a 12-month course of trastuzumab in combination with other agents, could also be a lifesaver for those still in the early stages of breast cancer because it reduced the risk of recurrence and death of patients by 46% compared with chemotherapy alone. In this respect trastuzumab has been viewed as a possible “cure” for early stage breast cancer. Based on these findings, trastuzumab’s approval was extended for the treatment of early stage HER2 cancers. Commenting on the 2 studies in the same edition of the NEJM Gabriel Hortoboagyi, a breast cancer specialist from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Huston, USA, said, “the results reported in this issue of the Journal are not evolutionary but revolutionary. . . . . . trastuzumab and the two reports in this issue will completely alter our approach to the treatment of breast cancer.” In September 2013, a time-saving subcutaneous formulation of trastuzumab was approved in Europe, which can be administered in just 2 to 5 minutes, rather than the standard 30 to 90 minutes intravenously.
 
Was the 12 months treatment time a “guess”?
After regulatory approval in 1998 and following some subsequent clinical studies, a 12-month regimen for trastuzumab became the standard of care. Notwithstanding, some oncologists view the 12-month treatment period as a “guess”, and some smaller trials have questioned the duration of treatment.
 
Clinical study and the 2018 ASCO Meeting
 
The study presented at the 2018 ASCO meeting is the largest and most significant study to-date, which suggests that the treatment time for trastuzumab could be halved. The randomized clinical study followed 4,088 women with early-stage breast cancer across 152 sites in the UK for a median of more than 5 years: 2043 received trastuzumab for 6 months and 2045 received the drug for 12 months. The disease-free survival rate at 4 years was 89.4% with 6 months of therapy and 89.8% with 12 months of therapy. In addition, 4% of patients on the shorter treatment dropped out due to cardiac toxicity versus 8% of those treated for a year. Across both groups, cardiac function recovered within a few months following treatment with trastuzumab but patients in the 6-month group recovered more rapidly.

Helena Earl, Professor of Clinical Cancer Medicine at the University of Cambridge, UK and the study’s lead investigator is confident that the study will, “mark the first steps towards reduction of treatment duration for many women with HER2-positive breast cancer." According to Richard Schilsky, ASCO’s Chief Medical Officer, “There’s no reason to not immediately change practice. The findings are persuasive”.

 
Expert reaction to the study

Although oncologists view the study’s findings as “persuasive”, changing the length of treatment time for trastuzumab might not occur quickly. Generally, clinicians appear hesitant to immediately support a shorter duration of trastuzumab as a new standard of care. Some believe that since so few women have died or relapsed after being treated with trastuzumab, longer follow-up may be required to make sure the findings hold up before guidelines are changed. 

My guess is that people will continue to aim for a year of treatment' because of lingering concerns that longer use is better, as a smaller previous study suggested,” says Harold Burstein, a breast cancer expert at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, USA. However, Burstein is mindful that a shorter treatment regimen might increase access to trastuzumab for patients in emerging economies where the prevalence of breast cancer is increasing but where many women cannot afford a 12-month treatment course of the drug.  Other experts suggest that the study’s findings are significant for women who suffer the toxic effects of trastuzumab.

Jennifer Litton, a breast cancer specialist at MD Anderson Cancer Center points to another issue the ASCO study raises. She suggests the study’s findings show just how important it can be to study drugs that are already on the market. “It's really important that we continue to have public funding for clinical trials, so we can continue to ask all of these questions for our patients. Scaling back treatment whenever possible is important to patients,” says Litton.

Industry response
A spokesperson for Roche Genentech, Herceptin's developers, suggested that the ASCO study should be viewed along with several smaller studies, which conclude that the optimum duration for trastuzumab is 12 months. The goal of the treatment, “is to provide people with the best chance for a cure.” Courtney Aberbach, a spokesperson for Genentech, which was acquired by Roche, in March 2009 for US$$46.8bn, suggested that previous studies had not found that a shorter duration worked as well as the longer one. She said the 12-month course was still the only regimen approved for early-stage disease by the FDA and recommended by several international organizations that issue treatment guidelines.

The HERA Trial
Industry views are influenced by a clinical study sponsored by Roche in the expectation that the 12-month trastuzumab treatment period could be doubled. Referred to as the HERA trial, the study was conducted by France's Institut National du Cancer and reported at the 2012 meeting of the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO). HERA was an international multi-centre, phase III randomized study involving 5,102 women with early HER2-positive breast cancer. After finishing primary therapy with surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, they were randomly assigned to trastuzumab therapy every 3 weeks for 1 year, 2 years or observation.
 
In April 2012, when the study’s findings were presented at the ESMO meeting, the overall survival rate of the 24-month treatment cohort versus the 12-month cohort was comparable. The principal conclusion of the study was that 12-month treatment remains the standard of care for HER2 positive early breast cancer patients. Results also suggested that shortening treatment of trastuzumab to 6 months may offer a worse result than a 12-month course of treatment. While the study’s findings meant that Roche missed an opportunity to expand sales of trastuzumab on the back of a longer recommended treatment period, they were also a relief to the company, which had faced the risk of losing significant sales revenues from trastuzumab had a shorter treatment period turned out to be as effective as the current standard of 12-months.
 
Unsustainable of cancer care

Cancer treatment has always been expensive, but the costs of newer molecular targeted therapies, such as trastuzumab, have escalated, which significantly reduces access for a lot of breast cancer patients to efficacious drugs. According to a 2015 study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, each year between 1995 and 2013 the prices of cancer drugs increased 10%. This finding led some health professionals to suggest that cancer therapies are becoming “unsustainable”. In England, NICE has come under intense criticism from patient groups for rejecting numerous cancer drugs for use on the NHS because they were not judged to be cost effective. The UK’s Cancer Drugs Fund, which was set up in 2011 to plug gaps in NHS funding for cancer drugs, overspent its allocated budget by 35% between 2013 and 2015. The debate of the rising cost of cancer therapies is exacerbated by the revenues generated by cancer drugs for big pharmaceutical companies. For example, in 2017 Roche-Genentech recorded annual sales of US$6.8bn for Herceptin alone, which some analysts suggested was driven partly by the duration of the treatment and partly by strong sales growth of the drug in Brazil and China.

When vast revenues from the sale of drugs are mentioned there is negative reaction directed at giant pharmaceutical companies. In their defence drug producers stress the vast costs of developing new drugs and the tenure of patents, which limit the time drug companies have to recoup R&D costs before copycats are introduced into the market. According to the most recent report from the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, and published in the May 2016 edition of the Journal of Health Economics; the cost of developing a medicine from invention to pharmacy shelves is estimated to be some US$2.7bn. Patents protect drugs for 20 years after the initial invention. This exclusivity is designed to promote a balance between new drug innovation and greater public access to drugs, which result from copycat versions.  Notwithstanding, big pharmaceutical companies stress that it can take 8 to 12 years after invention to accumulate enough data to get a drug past the FDA.
 
Biosimilars

For 20 years now Roche-Genentech has benefited from its 90% market share of the HER2-positive global breast cancer market. Notwithstanding, the main EU patent for Herceptin expired in 2014 and is due to expire in the US in 2019. Already, the market has experienced the entry of biosimilar versions of trastuzumab, which are expected to be cheaper and therefore extend patient access to the drug. Biosimilars are not to be confused with generic drugs. Regulators require biosimilars to be “highly similar” to the “reference product” but not exact copies of the biologic medicine. Biologic medicines are comprised of large complex molecules, which may be composed of living material. Here we provide some examples of the biosimilar versions of trastuzumab, which are coming onto the market.
 
Trastuzumab biosimilars
 
In December 2017, a biosimilar version of trastuzumab was approved by the FDA and is marketed in the US as Ogivri. Approval of Ogivri was based on a review of evidence that included extensive structural and functional characterization, animal study data, human pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic data, clinical immunogenicity data and other clinical safety and effectiveness data, which demonstrated that Ogivri is biosimilar to trastuzumab. In 2018, Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD) launched Ontruzan, in the UK, which is Europe’s first biosimilar to Herceptin. Clinical studies have shown Ontruzan to be similar to trastuzumab in terms of its structure, biological activity and efficacy, safety and immunogenicity profile. Studies also showed that in early breast cancer, breast pathologic complete response rates were 51.7% with Ontruzant and 42% with Herceptin, while overall response rates were 96.3% and 91.2% respectively. Mylan and Biocon have launched a biosimilar version of trastuzumab called Canmab in India, and Celltrion, has launched Herzuma, another biosimilar version of trastuzumab in South Korea. According to Mark Verrill, head of the Department of Medical Oncology at the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation TrustUK, “The launch of biosimilar trastuzumab provides a high-quality treatment alternative for patients, while offering significant potential savings for health providers and patients.”
 
Takeaways
 
The clinical study presented at the June 2018 meeting of ASCO suggested that the treatment time for trastuzumab could be reduced from 12 months to 6 without compromising outcomes. This would significantly reduce the cost of trastuzumab and thereby make the drug available to more breast cancer patients. Although the study’s findings are “persuasive” there is a reticence among clinicians to reduce the treatment time of trastuzumab. The ASCO study throws light on the challenges to reconcile the competing interests of patients, healthcare providers and drug companies. While pharmaceutical companies spend billions on R&D they are challenged to reconcile the demands of shareholders and society. Public funds for medical research, while important, are limited especially at a time of relatively slow economic growth and fiscal constraint. Given that there does not appear to be any credible suggestion to curtail the vast and escalating cost of cancer care more generally, the current situation, which incentivises giant pharmaceutical companies to invest in R&D with 20-year patents, appears to be a formula that will prevail for some time to come, and patients will have to wait significant lengths of time before they get access to biosimilars.  
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  • Each year about 1.7m women are diagnosed with breast cancer worldwide and over 0.5m die from the condition
  • Between 5% and 10% of these breast cancers result from harmful gene mutations
  • BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations are the most common cause of hereditary breast cancer
  • 45% to 85% of women with a BRCA mutation will develop breast cancer in their lifetime compared to 12% of women in the general population
  • Most women do not know if they have a harmful BRCA mutation
  • Testing for the BRCA gene is now affordable, fast and accessible
  • Surgical interventions of women with BRCA mutations can significantly reduce their risk of developing breast cancer and substantially increase cancer survival
  • Genetic test results for breast cancer are fraught with uncertainty because testing reveals the likelihood of developing cancer rather than a certain fate
  • Research suggests that BRCA test results are not being clearly communicated to women
  • Best practice demands that expert counselors discuss genetic testing and help interpret results
 
Breast cancer and harmful BRCA gene mutations


Few things frighten women more than discovering a lump in one of her breasts The standard treatment: surgery, followed by radio- and chemotherapy, can be disfiguring, painful, sometimes unsuccessful, and the impact of the disease is felt by far more individuals than just those who have the diagnosis.The good news is that over the past 30 years breast cancer survival rates in most developed countries have been improving, largely due to screening, earlier diagnosis and improved treatments. The bad new is that in most developed countries it is twice as likely for a woman to be diagnosed with breast cancer than 60 years ago.
 
Harmful BRCA genes mutations

5 to 10% of breast cancers are thought to be due to gene mutations, and harmful BRCA mutations account for 20 to 25% of these. Women who inherit the BRCA1 mutations have a 60 to 90% risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime, and those who inherit BRCA2 mutations increase their risk of breast cancer by 45 to 85%, compared to 12% of women in the general population. Most women do not know if they carry the harmful BRCA mutation, but if they discover they do, many elect to have a bilateral mastectomy. This is a significant procedure with potential risks and side effects, but can reduce your mortality risk by about 50%.
 
The gold standard screening for breast cancer is an x-ray picture of the breast (mammography), but increasingly women are turning to genetic testing as their awareness of the harmful BRCA mutations increase, and genetic testing becomes more accessible and affordable. However, results from these tests are not straightforward, and often not communicated well. This can increase the anxiety in women with suspected breast cancer, and make them elect to have unnecessary interventions and procedures.
 
This Commentary describes how advanced genetic testing together with expert counselling help women improve their management of breast cancer.
 

Breast Cancer
 
Cancer is a group of diseases that cause cells in your body to change and grow out of control: they mutate. Most types of cancer cells eventually form a lump or mass called a tumor, and are named after the part of the body where the tumor originates, e.g. “breast cancer”, although this convention is changing with the development of targeted personalized medicine. The exact cause of breast cancer is unknown, but the overwhelming majority result from some combination of environment, lifestyle, and genes. Breast cancer affects about 1 in 8 women at some point during their life, usually after the menopause, and is the most common cancer in women.  The majority of breast cancers begin in the parts of the breast tissue that are made up of glands for milk production, called lobules, and ducts that connect the lobules to the nipple. The remainder of the breast is made up of fatty, connective, and lymphatic tissue. Most invasive breast cancers (those that have spread from where they started) are found in women 55 and older. Women with a family history of the disease have an increased risk of getting breast cancer. Each year about 1.7m women are diagnosed with breast cancer worldwide, and over 0.5m die from the condition. However in developed economies more and more women survive the disease. In the US, for instance, the average 5-year survival rate for people with breast cancer is 89%. The 10-year rate is 83%, and the 15-year rate is 78%. Other developed countries have similar success rates. What makes breast cancer fatal is if it spreads to the bones, lungs, liver and other organs. Early detection in order to improve breast cancer outcomes remains the cornerstone of the condition’s management. Although breast cancer is thought to be a disease of the developed world, it is increasing rapidly in emerging countries where the majority of cases present later and die earlier than women in developed countries: almost 50% of breast cancer cases and 58% of deaths occur in emerging economies. This is because women generally have relatively poor knowledge of the risk factors, symptoms and methods for early detection. Also, they experience cancer fatalism, believe in alternative medicine, and lack of autonomy in decision making, which often results in delays in seeking or avoidance of evidence-based medicine.
 
Mammography
 
Mammography, which has long been the mainstay of breast cancer detection, is a specific type of breast imaging that uses low-dose x-rays to detect small changes in the breast before there are any other signs or symptoms of the disease when it is most treatable. Mammography is noninvasive, relatively inexpensive, and has reasonable sensitivity (72–88%), which increases with age. It can also be used to detect and diagnose breast disease in women experiencing symptoms such as a lump, pain, or nipple discharge. If breast cancer is found at an early stage, there is an increased chance for breast-conserving surgery and a better prognosis for long-term survival. Most developed countries operate breast-screening programs, which regularly provides mammography for women between certain ages.
 
Advances in mammography

In recent years, mammography has undergone increased scrutiny for false positives and excessive biopsies, which increase radiation dosage, cost and patient anxiety. In response to these challenges, new forms of mammography screening have been developed, including; low dose mammography, digital mammography, computer-aided detection, tomosynthesis, which is also called 3-D mammography, automated whole breast ultrasound, molecular imaging and MRI. Notwithstanding, there is increasing awareness of subpopulations of women for whom mammography has reduced sensitivity. More recently, women have turned to genetic testing to gain a better understanding of their risk of inherited breast cancer.
 
Genes

Every cell in your body contains genes. These contain the genetic code for your body, which not only determines the color of your eyes and hair etc., but also provides information that affects how the cells in your body behave: for example, how they grow, divide and die. Information in your genes is inherited from both parents, and you pass on this information to your children. A change in your genetic code that affects the function of a gene is called a mutation. Many inherited gene mutations do not have any effect on your health, but some do; the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations account for 20 to 25% of all inheritable female breast cancers and 15% of ovarian cancers.
  
BRCA genes

In normal cells, BRCA genes are tumor suppressor genes that assist in preventing cancer developing by making proteins that help to keep cells from growing abnormally. Mutated versions of BRCA genes cannot stop abnormal growth, and this can lead to cancer. Mutated BRCA genes have a higher prevalence in certain ethnic groups, such as those of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.

In the video below Professor Robert Leonard, a medical oncologist and an authority on breast cancer, describes how BRCA genes are influential in breast and ovarian cancer risk. BRCA1 runs in families and may also increase a woman’s risk of developing fallopian tube and peritoneal cancers. BRCA2 also runs in families, and is more breast cancer-specific, but a less commonly inherited abnormality. Both or either of these genes may not be detectably abnormal even in a family with a strong inherited pattern of breast cancer, but there is a significant possibility that you will find them in people with a family history of breast and ovarian cancer. Breast and ovarian cancers associated with BRCA mutations tend to develop at younger ages than their non-hereditary counterparts.

 
 
Enhanced risk when family members have cancer
 
In December 2013, the US Preventive Services Task Force recommended that women who have family members with breast, ovarian, fallopian tube, or peritoneal cancer be evaluated to see if they have a familial history that is associated with an increased risk of a harmful mutation in one of the BRCA genes. Compared to women without a family history of cancer, risk of breast cancer is about 2 times higher for women with a close female relative who has been diagnosed with cancer; nearly 3 times higher for women with two relatives, and nearly 4 times higher for women with three or more relatives. Risk is further increased when the affected relative was diagnosed at a young age. Notwithstanding, the Preventive Services Task Force recommends against BRCA testing for women with no family history of cancer.
  
The Angelina Jolie effect

The Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie lost her grandmother and aunt to breast cancer and her mother to ovarian cancer. After discovering that she carried a maternally inherited pathogenic BRCA1 mutation, and being told that she had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer, and a 50% chance of ovarian cancer, Jolie elected to have her breasts, ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. After surgery her risk of developing breast cancer in later life fell to 5%.
 
In May 2013, Jolie described her decision in a New York Times (NYT) article,  “I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience . . . . . Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action.”
 
Over testing of by low-risk women
 
Findings published in December 2016 in the British Medical Journal suggest that tests for the BRCA genes shot up by 64% following Jolie’s article. Researchers analysed data on US health insurance claims from more than 9m women between 18 and 64, and suggested that in just 2 weeks following Jolie’s NYT disclosure, 4,500 additional BRCA tests were carried out, which cost the US healthcare system some US$13.5m. Interestingly, increased testing rates were not accompanied by a corresponding increase in mastectomy rates, which suggests that additional testing did not identify new BRCA mutations. Thus, the Angela Jolie effect might have encouraged over-testing among low-risk women.
 
Mindful of her influence on women’s decisions, in 2015 Jolie wrote another NYT article in which she attempted to correct her earlier support for radical risk reduction surgery for women carriers of BRCA mutations. She said that because surgery worked for her, it is not necessarily the optimal therapeutic pathway for all women, and stressed that non-surgical treatments could be more appropriate.
 
Traditional genetic testing for breast cancer risk was slow and expensive

Genetic testing to detect BRCA mutations has been available since 1996, but for many years it was under-used because of its scarcity, high cost, and the length of time it took to produce a result. The rapid development and plummeting costs of genetic testing, and a 2013 US Supreme Court ruling, which invalidated the patents held by Myriad Genetics Inc., which restricted BRCA testing, have resulted in the growth and accessibility of genetic testing.
 
BRCA testing is not straightforward

There are hundreds of mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that can cause cancer. Several different tests are available, including tests that look for a known mutation in one of the genes (i.e., a mutation that has already been identified in another family member), and tests that check for all possible mutations in both genes. Commercial laboratories usually charge between US$450 and US$5,000 to carry out BRCA testing, depending on whether you are being tested for only a specific area(s) of a gene known to be abnormal or if hundreds of areas are being examined within multiple genes. Tests that use traditional technology take several months to report findings. This means that even if a woman is tested at the time of diagnosis, she might not know the results before she has to decide on treatment.
 
Importance of regulated testing laboratories

Testing for the BRCA genes usually involves a blood sample taken in a doctor’s clinic and sent to a commercial laboratory. In 1988, the US Congress passed the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) to ensure quality standards, and the accuracy and reliability of results across all testing laboratories. Since then, all legitimate genetic testing in the US is undertaken in CLIA-approved facilities. During testing for BRCA mutations, the genes are separated from the rest of the DNA, and then scanned for abnormalities. Unlike other clinical screening such as HIV tests and colonoscopies, which provide a simple positive or negative result; genetic testing is fraught with uncertainty because it reveals the likelihood of developing cancer rather than a certain fate.
 
BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic test results
 
A positive BRCA test result indicates that you have inherited a known harmful mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. This means that you have an increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers, but it does not mean that you will actually develop cancer. Some women who inherit a harmful BRCA mutation will never develop cancer. A positive test result may create anxiety and compel clinicians to perform further tests and women to undergo premature and unnecessary clinical interventions, other women in a similar situation will opt for regular screening.
 
The potential benefits of a true negative result include a sense of relief regarding your future risk of cancer, learning that your children are not at risk of inheriting the family's cancer susceptibility, and that a range of interventions may not be required. However, a negative result sometimes can be difficult to interpret because its meaning partly depends on your family’s history of cancer, and whether a BRCA mutation has been identified in a blood relative. Further, scientists continue to discover new BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, and have not yet identified all potentially harmful ones. Therefore, it is possible that although you have a “negative” test result you might have a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, which has not been identified.
 
Counselling
 
Because of these uncertainties and the agonising choices women with suspected breast cancer face, health providers in most developed countries recommend counselling as part of breast cancer treatment pathways. In the video below Dr John Green, a medical oncologist knowledgeable about the influence of inherited BRCA gene mutations on treatment options underlines the importance of expert genetic counselling to help women navigate their therapeutic pathways. Counselling is performed by a health professional experienced in cancer genetics, and usually includes the psychological risks and benefits of genetic tests, a hereditary cancer risk assessment based on a person’s personal and family medical history; a description of the tests, their technical accuracy and appropriateness, medical implications of a positive or a negative test result, the possibility of uncertain or ambiguous test results, cancer risk-reducing treatment options, and the risk of passing on a mutation to children. Because people are more aware of the genetic mutations linked to breast cancer, the demand for genetic testing and counselling have increased, and in some instances it is challenging for genetic counsellors to keep pace with demand.
 
 
The context in which genetic tests are carried out

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology suggests that genetic test results for breast cancer are not being clearly communicated to women, and this could cause them to opt for treatments that are more aggressive than they actually need. To reduce this possibility the Royal Marsden NHS Trust Hospital in London has introduced the Mainstreaming Cancer Genetics programme. Since 2014 the Marsden has employed genetic counseling and used laboratories with enhanced genetic testing capabilities. This reduces processing time and costs, helps to meet the increased demand for rapid, accurate and affordable BRCA testing, and helps women make critical decisions about their treatment options.
 
There were two main problems with the traditional system for gene testing. Firstly, gene testing was slow and expensive, and secondly the process for accessing gene testing was slow and complex,” says Nazneen Rahman, Professor and Head of Cancer Genetics at the UK’s Institute for Cancer Research in London. “We used new DNA sequencing technology to make a fast, accurate, affordable cancer gene test, which is now used across the UK. We then simplified test eligibility and brought testing to patients in the cancer clinic, rather than making them have another appointment, often in another hospital,” says Rahman.

The Marsden is now offering tests to three times more patients a year than before the program started. The new pathway is faster, with results arriving within 4 weeks, as opposed to the previous 20-week waiting period. According to Rahman, “Many other centres across the country and internationally are adopting our mainstream gene testing approach. This will help many women with cancer and will prevent cancers in their relatives.”

 
Takeaways

The history of cancer is punctuated with overzealous interventions, many of which have had to be modified once it has been demonstrated that they could cause more harm than good.

As advanced genetic testing becomes affordable and more accessible it is important that their results are interpreted with the help of genetic counsellors in a broader familial context in order to help women make painfully difficult decisions about their treatment.
 
Migration to next generation genetic testing technologies has many benefits, but it also introduces challenges, which arise from, the choice of platform and software, and the need for enhanced bio-informatics analysts, which are in scarce supply. An efficient, cost-effective accurate mutation detection strategy and a standardized, systematic approach to the reporting of BRCA test results are central for diagnostic laboratories wishing to provide a service during a time of increasing demand and downward pressure on costs.
 
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