A new research clinic has been opened at University College London Hospital. I was delighted to learn all about it. Learn about it too by reading my blog.
The aim is nothing less than changing the thinking about a particularly vicious problem: the BRCA gene mutations.
Together, BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations account for about 20 to 25 percent of hereditary breast cancers and about 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancers in the UK every year (50,285 cases). In addition, mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 account for around 15 percent of ovarian cancers overall (7,116 cases).
This can be passed on by either parent and leaves their children at risk – with a 50% chance they too will inherit the faulty gene. Those women who carry this have a much higher risk of developing either breast or ovarian cancer.
Up to 65% of women are likely to develop ovarian cancer in their lifetime and 85% of women are likely to develop breast cancer who carry the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 gene. Men too can suffer from breast cancer.
So severe is this increased risk of developing cancer, that in 2013, the actress Angelina Jolie made public the fact that she had preventative surgery – after losing her mother to ovarian cancer.
Daloni Carlisle is a 51-year old mother of two daughters who carries the BRCA gene mutation. I met her at the opening of the new clinic.
She has already been diagnosed with womb cancer. “I have daughters – 11 and 15 – and that is why, for me, this research is so important.”
Daloni is a warm, amusing person to meet, but for her the threat to her is ever-present. “I probably won’t be drawing a pension,” she told me.
So what is the new research?
It’s not hard to follow the detail as a layman, but as I understand it, the research team at UCLH pondered on one key fact.
Cells divide throughout our lives. Some divisions are malformed, but our bodies generally destroy these. The BRCA mutation (which comes in two forms) prevents this from taking place. This much is agreed.
But what the team wondered about was why breasts and ovaries were so susceptible. After all, other parts of our bodies (our bowels and liver) divide very rapidly, but the BRCA gene mutation does not affect them.
The team’s theory was explained by Professor Martin Widschwendter, Head of the Department of Women's Cancer.
He believes that the onset of puberty releases a range of hormones. These – in people with the BRCA mutation leave damage or a ‘memory’ on the cell. This greatly increases the threat of women carrying these gene of developing breast or ovarian cancer.
The new clinic will now begin recruiting 800 women with the BRCA mutation and twice that number without the mutation. They will be asked to provide samples in phase one of the research and a select group of women will be given drugs to test which might be effective in fighting this scourge in the second phase.
The women who do not carry BRCA are needed as a control group, to validate the study. The project is being funded by The Eve Appeal - the UK’s only charity dedicated to funding world-class research and raising awareness of all five gynaecological cancers (womb, ovarian, cervical, vulval and vaginal).
The BRCA mutation is particularly prevalent among the Ashkenazi Jewish population. As London is home to so many Jewish families, the research is – according to Professor Widschwendter - therefore an excellent place to undertake this before potentially expanding out to other locations across the UK.
However, for the time being the world-class facilities at UCLH are the perfect surroundings to conduct this vitally important research.
To find out more information about the research programme – BRCA PROTECT – please visit www.eveappeal.org.uk/brca where you will find a short video giving a general overview of the research.