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Genetics and cancer: Victorians in largest ever study of its kind

Tuesday 16 April, 2013 by Dinah

You may have heard (or read) about a study that has discovered genetic errors that could increase the risk of breast, prostate and ovarian cancers. While the discovery won't change treatments overnight, it could pave the way for tests that predict an individual's risk of disease and allow for targeted screening.

Scientists also hope to better understand how these cancers develop in the first place.

So, what did the study actually find? Well, altogether the research discovered 84 genetic changes that are linked to these cancers. To put it into perspective, 26 of the new genetic changes found were related to prostate cancer, taking the total found so far to 78. For breast cancer the researchers found another 49 changes, more than doubling the number that had previously been found. And, in ovarian cancer nine new regions of change were found.

Each of the genetic changes found can alter the way a gene behaves and may increase the risk of developing cancer. With each change, cancer risk rises by a very small amount, but one in 100 people have a large proportion of these changes and are five times more likely to develop prostate cancer and three times more likely to develop breast cancer.

Researchers suggest that while the discovery of an additional 23 genetic changes related to prostate cancer is very important, this could be just the tip of the iceberg. There could be more than 2000 such genetic changes that influence a man's chance of developing prostate cancer. It's vital that exploration of the genetic basis of cancer is given the support it needs to continue.

The study was led by research institutes based in the UK, but it was only possible to carry out research of this scale and scope through global collaboration. In total, the researchers had access to the DNA of more than 100,000 people with cancer and 100,000 people from the general population. Four researchers from the Cancer Council Victoria took part in the study and contributed 6000 DNA samples to the research project. The ability to contribute to this global study is a testament to the investment that the Cancer Council Victoria has made in its own research projects and the support of agencies such as the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Our researchers believe these findings could help pinpoint the causes behind these cancers, and identify who could be most at risk. The more we know, the more chance we have of finding and treating cancers early.

Breast cancer is the most common new cancer in Victorian women with over 3700 diagnoses in 2011 (29% of all cancers). Prostate cancer remains the most common new cancer in Victorian men with almost 4700 new diagnoses in 2011 (30% of total cancers).

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