Research: Breast Cancer Gene Screening Not Warranted For All

UNC-CH News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- Screening for mutations in a gene known as BRCA1 that is believed to predispose women to breast cancer should not be done routinely because the mutations are less prevalent than researchers thought, according to a new study.

Widespread screening of breast cancer patients or unaffected women in the absence of family history would waste considerable money and is more likely to yield results that are hard to interpret, say scientists at the universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Washington at Seattle. Testing may be helpful for women from families in which both breast and ovarian cancer have occurred or in which at least four cases of breast cancer have been identified.

"Women who inherit an altered form of this gene from either parent are at increased risk of breast cancer sometime during their lives," said Dr. Beth Newman, assistant professor of epidemiology at the UNC-CH School of Public Health. "Most previous comparable research took place among patients attending specialized cancer clinics so it was estimated that between 11 percent and 20 percent of women carried a defective gene. We found the frequency of breast cancer due to BRCA1 to be considerably lower than that."

For the first time, Newman and colleagues studied women with breast cancer who were not selected on the basis of their age at diagnosis or their family medical history to develop a better estimate of how common mutations in the gene were. Included were 211 N.C. breast cancer patients, ages 20 to 74, and 188 women without the illness who served as controls. About half the subjects were white, and about half were black.

A report on the findings appears in Wednesday's (March 25) issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.


Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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