A smartphone app is helping GPs and hospital doctors and nurses to rapidly identify patients at risk of Angelina Jolie-style family cancers.
It enables people at risk of hereditary cancers, such as breast, ovarian and bowel cancer, to be quickly referred for potentially lifesaving treatment.
Others with a history of cancer in their family can be told that they are not at risk of it being inherited. This can offer speedy reassurance to parents as about one in 10 childhood cancers are inherited.
The Cancer Genetics app, developed by the clinical genetics team at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust and technology firm UBQO, uses personal, family and medical history to assess the risk of inherited cancer.
It links to the latest NHS guidance and peer-reviewed articles in medical journals on about 30 cancers to ensure frontline healthcare professionals have the most up-to-date information at their fingertips.
Dr Anju Kulkarni, consultant clinical geneticist at Guy’s and St Thomas’, said it was difficult for doctors to keep abreast of “rapidly evolving” advice as inherited cancers, which are caused by gene mutations, accounted for about five per cent of all cancers.
“Spotting those patients who are at risk can be tricky if you don’t have the up-to-date guidance at hand,” she said. “It’s hard enough to keep abreast of everything, for GPs in particular. Every aspect of cancer work is rapidly evolving, particularly in cancer genetics, where there have been huge advances in the last few years.”
Anjelina Jolie’s announcement three years ago that she had undergone a preventative double mastectomy and subsequent removal of her ovaries after discovering that she inherited the defective BRCA1 gene that killed her mother saw a doubling of referrals to the breast cancer clinic at Guys. Referrals are still a third higher than before her announcement. The service receives more than 1,800 referrals a year.
Mother-of-two Kenisha McGregor, 37, from Lewisham, was found to carry the BRCA1 mutation when she was referred to Guy’s Hospital after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. She went on to have a double mastectomy.
“I’d been told that I could have an elevated risk of cancer due to my family history after my first scare, but I wasn’t given a definitive answer,” she said. “I was left wondering until I found a second lump in my armpit and was diagnosed.
“The use of this app could save families from similar uncertainty and help them to receive specialist genetic testing if necessary. I have a son and a daughter and, although it will be difficult for me to accept the results, I’d encourage them both to go for testing when they are older so that together we can be either reassured, or make informed decisions about prevention if they do carry the gene.
The app has already been downloaded by health professionals almost 1,000 times in 36 countries across the world. Life sciences minister George Freeman MP said: “This app highlights the ground-breaking role that new digital technology can play in supporting NHS patients and clinicians with better diagnosis and treatment.
“Not only will it help to inform people about the risks of inherited cancers but it can put the minds of many at ease, and allow the NHS to refer patients directly to specialist cancer genetics services.”