Actor Angelina Jolie underwent a preventive double mastectomy after testing positive for a BRCA1 gene mutation. Her story spurred demand for genetic testing, especially for identifying the risk of chronic illnesses such as cancer. But even before this story could fuel momentum for genetic testing worldwide, the human genome project’s success had completely changed the way humans could dissect the DNA, giving rise to many scientific breakthroughs.
Genetic cancer testing is one such breakthrough that has played a very crucial role in estimating a person’s chance of developing cancer in their lifetime. It does this by observing specific changes in genes, chromosomes, or proteins – these changes are called ‘genetic mutations’.
For instance, in a family that is predisposed to developing a certain kind of cancer or any other factors that can cause cancer, genetic screening can help identify this risk. Therefore, genetic screening is said to be useful in understanding the causes and risks of childhood cancers.
USING GENETICS FOR IDENTIFYING RISK OF CANCER IN CHILDREN: Genetic testing is a process that looks for alterations in genes, either in normal tissue or cancerous tissue. Alterations in normal tissue may identify children who would benefit from Cancer screening and inform individually tailored treatment. Alterations, or mutations, in tumour tissues may provide clues to cancer’s behaviour and help physicians design a treatment program with the greatest chance of success.
BENEFITS OF CANCER GENETIC TESTING IN KIDS: There are two types of genetic testing – Germline and Somatic. Germline testing can indicate whether an individual has a heightened risk for developing certain types of cancers. Somatic testing may reveal some of the mutations driving the growth of cancer and may be targeted by advanced therapies.
BOTH CAN HELP IN THE FOLLOWING:
- Parents can start cancer screening tests earlier
- Can guide screening for certain kind of cancers
- Helps in keeping a close watch for signs or symptoms of cancer
- Learn about options to help reduce the risk of certain types of cancer
- When is the best time to conduct genetic testing for kids?
While prenatal screening is still controversial in India and is strongly governed by law, but your doctor might recommend genetic testing if you have a family history of a genetic disease such as cancer, or if your child has symptoms of a condition that has been associated with a genetic disorder. It is always best to consult your doctor before deciding to go in for genetic screening.
RISK FACTORS: Generally, genetic tests have little to no physical risk. All it takes is blood and cheek swabs. However, prenatal testing such as Amniocentesis or Chorionic Villus sampling has a small pregnancy loss chance (miscarriage). Therefore, it is also advisable to check with your doctor for the same. But apart from this, genetic testing can have emotional, social and financial risks as well. Once people know that their kids may risk developing cancer, it may lead to constant fear and anxiety. Moreover, these tests are quite expensive, so only when there is a history of ailments or certain risk factors should parents opt for genetic testing.
(Dr Anil Heroor is HOD-Surgical Oncology, Fortis Hospital, Kalyan).