Common Risk Alleles Could Help in Breast Cancer Screening

Small number of susceptibility alleles could direct breast cancer screening to women at higher risk

WEDNESDAY, June 25 (HealthDay News) -- Assessing a small number of susceptibility alleles could be helpful in identifying women who are genetically at higher risk of breast cancer and make screening programs more efficient, according to the authors of an article in the June 26 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Paul D.P. Pharoah, Ph.D., of the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and colleagues calculated that seven common moderate-risk alleles generate a risk profile for breast cancer that does not seem to discriminate between women well enough to merit using it for prevention in individuals. However, the authors present a case for using such factors for targeting women at higher risk in screening programs.

In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service breast-screening program is offered to all women starting at 50 years of age, when they have a 2.3-percent risk of breast cancer in the next 10 years. If 2.3 percent is thus the threshold for offering a screening program, it's reasonable to offer screening to all women with that risk, regardless of age, the authors write. Women at higher risk might need screening starting at a younger age, and women at lower risk might never reach the 2.3-percent threshold due to the effects of other causes of death.

"Our understanding of the genetic susceptibility to breast cancer and other complex diseases is likely to change rapidly over the next decade. Policymakers should start to consider how this knowledge could be used to make a polygenic approach to disease prevention a reality," the authors conclude.

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