A recent media headline proclaimed “New Drug is Holy Grail in Cancer Fight”
When people see a headline like this - particularly if they have cancer or they know of someone close to them who has cancer - they get their hopes up high. But when you read the article in depth, you find this particular revolutionary new drug called Olaparib would help a very small proportion of those with cancer.
The drug has been developed for that 1% of the population who have BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations
While those with the BRCA mutation have a higher risk of developing cancer than the rest of the population, it is still just a small cross section of people who would benefit.
To call this particular break through a “Holy Grail” is misleading
For men with the BRCA mutation, the lifetime risk of developing prostate cancer doubles from 7% to over 15%, while for women the risk of developing ovarian cancer jumps from 2% to 60% and breast cancer from 10% to 85%. These statistics for women are pretty frightening.
But as I have said only 1% of the population has BRCA mutation in the first place AND even if this new development, Olaparib, comes through its trials with flying colors, it could be years before it is widely available.
In the meantime, nearly two thirds of those with the BRCA mutation who have been using the drug in clinical trails have responded positively.
What exactly is BRCA?
Both BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 are tumor suppressor genes that usually have the job of controlling cell growth and cell death. Everyone has two BRCA 1 genes (one on each chromosome #17) and two BRCA 2 genes (one on each chromosome #13). However, when a person has one altered or mutated copy of either of these genes, their risk for various types of cancer increases considerably. Both copies of a tumor suppressor gene must be altered or mutated before a person will develop cancer.
BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are not located on the sex chromosomes so these mutations can be inherited from the maternal or the paternal side of the family.
How do doctors test for BRCA mutations?
A small sample of blood is taken and the DNA is analysed for BRCA defects. At many clinics, only those whose family histories place them at a high risk of developing cancers are eligible for genetic testing.
The advantages and disadvantages of knowing your BRCA status
- Do you really want yet another thing in your life to worry about? Do you really want to know that you are at risk of developing a potentially life threatening disease? And what could you do about it anyway if you tested positive?
If you are in this situation, then the development of Olaparib becomes rather important after all.
- Some women who test positive go as far as having surgery to have their breasts and ovaries removed to reduce the chance of cancer. But obviously this is a huge decision to make and not one to be made lightly. Anyone in this situation would need to weigh up the alternatives and do their own investigation.