Stories about: precision cancer medicine

How genetics can help predict — and sometimes stop — childhood cancers

cancer-genetics-childhood-cancerAmy Kindstedt hates cancer, but the 9-year-old is very thankful for one thing: Because genetic testing on her baby brother Hunter revealed he had the same genetic mutation she did, his cancer was caught much earlier than hers — possibly sparing him the same level of intense treatment she endured.

The mapping of the human genome has ushered in the age of precision cancer medicine, in which an individual’s treatment can be tailored to the specific genetic abnormalities of her disease. In recent years, much attention has been brought to genetic testing for cancer risk, particularly around Angelina Jolie and her decision to undergo preventative surgeries.

Sometimes, a gene that contributes to disease contains a mutation, similar to misspelling a word, which can lead to a higher risk of cancer. In Jolie’s case, this was a mutation in the BRCA1 gene. Knowing which mutated genes are at fault for a particular cancer can also help physician-scientists determine, through genetic testing, which members of a patient’s family may have the same mutations and be at higher risk.

Less than a month after Amy’s lung surgery, Hunter had a tumor removed from his lung, too. ~ Susan Kindstedt

But genetic mutations don’t just affect adults. The Pediatric Cancer Genetic Risk Program at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, where the Kindstedts were treated, offers multidisciplinary care to families in this situation. During twice-monthly clinics, patients at increased risk for hereditary cancers and their relatives meet with pediatric oncologists, genetic counselors, psychologists and other specialists from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital for cancer risk assessments, recommendations for managing cancer risk and psychosocial support.

“Parents often ask what caused their child’s cancer, whether it could be genetic, and whether other children in the family might also be at risk,” says Dr. Junne Kamihara, co-director of the Pediatric Cancer Genetic Risk Program. “We provide a team that can address these issues, with an excellent referral network of experts in the field all dedicated to working with our families to help find answers.”

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