herald

Thursday 21 November 2019

We're struggling to cope with cancer screening, warns doctor

Professor David Gallagher
Professor David Gallagher

Doctors are struggling to cope with a surge in demand for genetic tests from patients with cancer and healthy people with a family history of the disease.

Professor David Gallagher, a consultant in medical oncology and genetics at St James's Hospital in Dublin warned his clinic is now getting 7,800 referrals a year - around 150 a week - and this is leading to waiting lists.

He said his team expects to provide 4,000 test results this year - up from less than 500 in 2013 - but it cannot keep pace with demand.

The patients include those who have cancer and want to find out if they have a genetic mutation which would make them suitable for certain drug treatments.

Others have a family history of particular cancers and want to know if they have inherited versions of the genes which could leave them at increased risk of developing the illness later on.

A healthy patient, who is referred today, will be on a waiting list until May, said Prof Gallagher.

Risk

"A lot of the testing is urgent. We keep slots for urgent cases each week. If the testing will change the treatment of a cancer patient, we will get them in," he said.

However, it means that this pushes out the time faced by patients who need testing to show if they have a mutated gene which can increase their chance of getting cancer in future.

A positive result means the person with the inherited faulty versions of genes can take steps to manage their risk of developing cancer.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 - which actress Angelina Jolie inherited - are two of the best-known examples of genes that raise a woman's risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer.

Prof Gallagher said his service is "hugely under-staffed" and there is an urgent need of more consultant cancer geneticists and counsellors.

A new cancer geneticist will join the team from New York next year and he said there is also a need to develop our own molecular genetics lab.

Currently, samples are sent abroad for testing which adds to the delay.

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