The potential downside of genetic health screenings

Credit: MD Anderson
Credit: MD Anderson

Doctors are increasingly testing people’s genes for signs of hereditary risks for cancer, said Dr. Allison Kurian, a medical oncologist and the director of the Women’s Clinical Cancer Genetics Program at Stanford University. If the tests find a genetic variation known to cause cancer, treatments or preventive measures may be recommended to prevent the disease, she said.

But the trend can unsettle patients… sometimes unnecessarily, because many genetic findings are ambiguous, leaving doctors uncertain about whether a particular variant is truly dangerous.

Multiple-gene panel tests emerged in 2012 and the number of genes covered in these panels has since ballooned, with tests that include more than 80 genes associated with cancer commonly available.

However, the chances of finding an inconclusive result — which can be troubling for patients and confusing for doctors to interpret — rises as more genes are tested. 

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Kurian said patients can be tested for all the cancer genes available as long as they understand that the analysis of many genes will likely not be informative. Several years later, if more evidence accumulates for a particular gene, those results may inform medical decisions.

“It’s not wrong” to conduct the tests, said Kurian. “But it needs to be appropriately handled by all parties.”

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