Population-based cancer screenings could save thousands of lives, millions of dollars

Cancer screenings at the population level—rather than on an individual basis based on family history—could save thousands of lives and reduce costs, researchers reported this week in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Current clinical guidelines may recommend genetic testing in those whose immediate family have been affected by cancer, but implementing that approach alone could result in missing hundreds of cancer diagnoses every year, lead researcher Ranjit Manchanda, MD, PhD, and colleagues wrote. Because of recent technological advances in genomic medicine, though, larger-scale testing is now an option.

“Population testing for breast and ovarian cancer gene mutations is the most cost-effective strategy which can prevent these cancers in high-risk women and save lives,” Manchanda said in a release from Oxford University Press. “Falling costs of testing and technological advancements has made testing populations feasible. As knowledge and societal acceptability of this type of testing increases, it will provide new opportunities for cancer prevention and the way we deliver cancer genetic testing in healthcare.”

Though it’s important to acknowledge family history of chronic illnesses like cancer and take the appropriate measures to stave off disease, Manchanda et al. wrote, numerous cancer cases present themselves in patients with a clean health slate.

Manchanda’s team evaluated the effects of population-based versus individual genetic testing in women 30 years old and up, focusing on breast and ovarian cancer. In the study, the cost-effectiveness of population-based BRCA1, BRCA2, RAD51C, RAD51D, BRIP1 and PALB2 mutation testing was compared with clinical criteria and family history testing in unselected general population women.

The researchers found that population-based testing was more effective than evaluating possible variables in individual patients, and saved time, money and, most importantly, more lives.

“Our findings support broadening genetic testing for breast and ovarian cancer genes across the entire population beyond just the current criteria-based clinical approach,” Manchanda said. “This approach can have important implications given the effective options that are available for ovarian and breast cancer risk management and prevention for women at increased risk.”