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Cancer gene therapy to be offered to people with Jewish ancestry

Thousands of people in England with Jewish ancestry, who have a higher risk of developing certain cancers, are to be offered a genetic test by the NHS

NHS England is rolling out a national BRCA gene testing programme to detect cancer in anyone over 18 with Jewish ancestry. The new scheme forms part of a national drive by health leaders to spot and treat the disease earlier through simple saliva tests.

Anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent can register for the saliva kit to be delivered to their home, take a sample of saliva, and send it to a laboratory.

‘It can be daunting, finding out whether or not you have an altered BRCA gene, and some people may feel they’d rather not know, but finding out early means NHS can provide people with further testing, surveillance or treatment as early as possible,’ said Peter Johnson, the national cancer clinical director for NHS England.

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BRCA refers to two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, which repair DNA damage and normally help to protect against cancer. Some people are born with a fault in one of the genes, which increases their likelihood of developing certain cancers, including breast, ovarian, prostate, and pancreatic cancer.

A fault in one of the BRCA genes affects about one in 400 people, but the NHS said people with Jewish ancestry were six times more likely to carry the faults. People who are found to have defective BRCA genes, known as being BRCA positive, will be given early access to cancer detection services such as mammograms or MRI scans. The NHS said they may also be offered preventative surgery or medication and advised to make risk-reducing lifestyle changes.

The NHS rolled out a pilot phase of the programme, where 5,000 people with Jewish ancestry came forward for testing, and 80 of them were found to have defective BRCA genes. The aim of the new national rollout is to test 30,000 people over the next two years.

‘This is a landmark moment as we can now harness developments in genetic screening to increase the chances of preventing the onset of cancer and offer the Jewish community a huge opportunity to gain the knowledge that will help mitigate against the impact of hereditary cancer and ultimately save lives,’ said Nicole Gordon, chief executive officer of the charity Jnetics, which has worked with the NHS on the rollout.