Breast Cancer Awareness: The Geneticist's Story - `Gene Therapy Might Help One Day, but Prevention Is What We Are Concerned With' Professor John Burn, Head of a Cancer Genetics Network, Sheds Light on the Importance of Gene Research in Helping Those Most at Risk

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Of the 35,000 women who are struck down by breast cancer every year, around 2,000 of them will get the disease because they inherited a faulty breast cancer gene.

Six years ago these women were given a lifeline when geneticists finally located the rogue gene BRCA1, followed by a second gene, BRCA2 a year later. Recently they found a third, named P53.

And with the arrival of family genetics clinics throughout Britain, more and more families with a history of breast cancer among relatives are being tested to see who might have inherited the faulty gene.

"These genes normally suppress tumours but when they are faulty, do just the opposite," explains Professor John Burn, head of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's Clinical Cancer Genetics Network. "If you think of a gene as a book, then the faulty gene is a spelling mistake. Not everybody who inherits this spelling mistake will automatically develop breast cancer, although a high number, around 85 per cent, will. They then have a one-in-two chance of passing it on to their daughters - and sons who can act as carriers. We don't want to be fatalistic. We want to use the genetic knowledge effectively and set up a prevention programme so that those who have inherited the gene can be helped, hopefully, before the cancer develops."

Women who have had three relatives with breast cancer (spread over two generations) would be considered to have a high risk of inheriting a faulty gene. …