A Free State genetics scientist and a PhD candidate have collaborated with a Stellenbosch research team to come up with new cost-effective testing for breast and ovarian cancers. The new technology, dubbed point-of-care testing, will reach more communities and hopefully save more lives.
These are the hopes of Dr Nerina van der Merwe from the University of the Free State, PhD candidate Jaco Oosthuizen and Stellenbosch team lead, Prof Maritha Kotze.
“We were approached by Prof Kotze, who is also very passionate about cancer research. She and her team, together with a company in the United Kingdom, have been working on designing a POC assay for this new technology, based on our research results,” explains Van der Merwe.
“We became involved, as we are currently the state referral centre for familial breast and ovarian cancer in the country and have screened more than 3 000 patients diagnostically up to now. With the use of our research results and access to positive controls, we are in a position to assist with the validation and potential implementation of this technology in the future.”
Years of research
According to Van der Merwe, this new technology – once it is validated as a diagnostic genetic test – is the future of familial breast and ovarian cancer testing in South Africa when performed in conjunction with genetic counselling.
The robustness of the assay and user-friendly practical method makes it extremely suitable for use in rural clinics, also eliminating the need for expensive laboratory equipment, she explains.
By performing the test at the community clinic, patients no longer need to be transported to tertiary hospitals for genetic testing. Also, more patients and related family members who are unaware that they have inherited a disease, causing a change in high-risk cancer genes such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, will be reached.
Van der Merwe has been involved with genetic research on familial breast and ovarian cancer since 1995 and says this is the outcome of nearly 30 years of South African-specific cancer research.
SA specific variants
She was appointed with the main goal of determining the range and contribution of genetic changes in these two genes to our population. Her work, in collaboration with Prof Lizette van Rensburg from the University of Pretoria, identified the first South African-specific variants, which proved to represent South African-unique recurrent, or founder variants found in African and Afrikaner populations.
Gradually, the number of founder variants unique to our population increased to a total of six, says van der Merwe.
She is extremely excited that the progress being made in the field will not only benefit the patient, but also unaffected at-risk family members.
According to her, implementation of this new technology has various benefits; not only is it cheap and robust, but the results are available within 90 minutes. Another benefit is that the test will be validated using saliva or a buccal swab, which is less invasive than taking a blood sample.
“By performing genetic counselling while the test is running, patients and family members will have the opportunity to ask questions about testing and cancer, which will simultaneously increase community awareness.
Benefits of POC
By talking during a face-to-face consultation, the counsellor can ensure that the patient and related family members understand the value of the test. This will eventually result in an increase in the currently low uptake of genetic testing in related at-risk family members, as this cancer type is inherited.
“I think by taking the test to the patients, that is where the benefit would be, as patients are often accompanied by their family members to clinics. This will provide an opportunity to inform them, as patients often do not discuss their diagnosis and test results with family members. This is evident in patients receiving a positive test result for an inherited disease, but who are not even aware of family history for these cancer types. This applies especially to African communities.”
“The possible impact of such a testing strategy makes me extremely excited, because why are we doing this? We need to warn unaffected related individuals about their risk, which can only be done by testing them. By doing this, we can play a part in the earlier detection or diagnosis of patients, ultimately improving their cancer survival rate.”
Apart from founder testing, Van der Merwe and her team have since broadened their testing regime from screening for BRCA1 and BRCA2 only, to multi-gene panel testing using next-generation-sequencing to include other genes causing these two and other specific cancer types.
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