Jewish adults living in England will be offered a free genetic test to see if they are at a higher risk of certain cancers.
People with Jewish ancestry are more likely to carry a genetic mutation that puts them at risk of developing cancers such as breast, prostate, ovarian and pancreatic.
Genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2 normally repair cells and help to prevent cancer. But sometimes these genes are faulty, increasing a person’s risk of some cancers.
Around one in every 400 people carry an altered BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Jews are six times more likely to carry this kind of fault than the rest of the population.
For this reason, the country’s public health system is rolling out a population-based screening programme to improve prevention and detection of BRCA-related cancers in one of the first screening programmes of its kind in the world.
Anyone over 18 with at least one Jewish grandparent will be eligible for a free saliva test they can order by mail and perform at home.
Around 30,000 people will be tested under the programme over the next two years. It’s one of the first screening programmes of its kind in the world.
People found to carry a BRCA fault may be invited for more frequent cancer checks. This can make sure any cancer that does develop is detected faster and diagnosed at an earlier, more treatable stage.
People with a BRCA fault may also be offered surgery, medication and advice on lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of certain cancers.
Not everyone who has a faulty BRCA gene will develop cancer, says Baroness Delyth Morgan, who runs the charity Breast Cancer Now.
“But being aware of their significantly increased risk can enable [people] to receive support from the NHS and consider a range of options including regular screening, lifestyle changes, risk-reducing surgery or medicines to help lower their risk,” she said.
Women with BRCA gene faults have a 74% chance of developing breast cancer and a 44% chance of getting ovarian cancer, for example.
Sometimes, people may choose to have preventative surgery to reduce their risk of developing certain cancers.
Back in 2013, Angeline Jolie famously had a double mastectomy after finding out she had a high genetic risk of developing breast cancer.
A ‘huge success’
Although the fact that people with Jewish ancestry have a higher chance of carrying faulty BRCA genes has been known for some time, only now will they be eligible for screening as standard.
Previously, Jewish people could only get a public health-provided BRCA test if they had a strong history of related cancers in there family, or if they developed breast or ovarian cancer themselves.
But research has shown that more than half of people with a BRCA fault wouldn’t qualify for testing under a “family history” approach. So some charities have been campaigning for more targeted screening programmes.
Jnetics, which aims to improve the prevention and diagnosis of genetic disorders impacting Jewish communities, says the new population-based programme will initially run for three years.
Describing an initial pilot scheme as a “huge success,” Jnetics chief executive officer Nicole Gordon said the fully-fledged programme was “a huge opportunity to gain the knowledge that will help mitigate against the impact of hereditary cancer and ultimately save lives.”