Conference Coverage

Huge underuse of germline testing for cancer patients


AT ASCO 2023

– Fewer than 7% of patients newly diagnosed with cancer are tested for germline genetic mutations, and the percentage tested was even lower among racial and ethnic minorities, a huge study has found.

Information from germline genetic testing could affect a patient’s cancer care. For example, such testing could indicate that targeted therapies would be beneficial, and it would have implications for close relatives who may carry the same genes.

The finding that so few patients with newly diagnosed cancer were tested comes from an analysis of data on more than 1.3 million individuals across two U.S. states. The data were taken from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) registry.

The rate is “well below guideline recommendations,” said study presenter Allison W. Kurian, MD, department of medicine, Stanford (Calif.) University.

“Innovative care delivery” is needed to tackle the problem, including the streamlining of pretest counseling, making posttest counseling more widely available, and employing long-term follow-up to track patient outcomes, she suggested.

“I do think this is a time for creative solutions of a number of different kinds,” she said. She suggested that lessons could be learned from the use of telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic. She also noted that “there have been some interesting studies on embedding genetic counselors in oncology clinics.”

Dr. Kurian presented the study at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). The study was simultaneously published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The current results represent a “missed opportunity for decrease the population-level burden of cancer,” experts noted in an accompanying editorial.

“Clinicians should recommend testing to their patients and provide them with the information necessary to make informed decisions about whether to undergo testing,” Zsofia K. Stadler, MD, and Deborah Schrag, MD, MPH, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, wrote in their editorial.

They suggested novel approaches to widen access, such as use of point-of-care testing, telecounseling, and, in the future, chatbots to respond to patient questions.

“With greater emphasis on overcoming both health system and patient-level barriers to genetic cancer susceptibility testing for patients with cancer, treatment outcomes will improve and cancer diagnoses and related deaths in family members will be prevented,” they concluded.

At the meeting, invited discussant Erin Frances Cobain, MD, assistant professor of medical oncology, University of Michigan Health, Ann Arbor, referring to breast cancer as an example, said that progress has “stagnated” in recent years.

The study found a higher rate of gene testing among patients with newly diagnosed breast cancer, at just over 20%.

Dr. Cobain argued that this was still too low. She pointed out that “a recent study suggested that over 60% of individuals with an incident cancer diagnosis would meet criteria for genetic testing by National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines.

“This may be because testing is not offered, there may be poor access to genetic counseling resources, or patients may be offered testing but decline it,” she suggested.

One compelling reason to conduct genetic testing for patients newly diagnosed with breast cancer is that it may show that they are candidates for treatment with PARP (poly[ADP]-ribose polymerase) inhibitors, which “may have a direct impact on cancer-related mortality,” she pointed out.

“We need increased awareness and access to genetic testing resources for patients with breast cancer, particularly for racial and ethnic minorities,” she said.

Dr. Cobain also noted that finding variants of uncertain significance (VUS) was more likely among patients from racial and ethnic minorities than among White patients. She said such a finding “increases patient and physician anxiety,” and there may be “unclear optimal management recommendations for these patients.”


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