‘Knowledge is power’ – genetic test helps treatment for cancer patients

Cancer doctors are hoping a lifesaving trial at an Irish hospital which is reducing patients’ wait for genetic testing from two years to just four weeks, is made permanent. 

Medics say the six-month ‘mainstreaming’ pilot project at Cork University Hospital is a game changer in the battle against the disease. 

It has already fast-tracked testing for over 80 patients and it is hoped to continue for the rest of the year, testing up to 30 cancer patients each month. 

Mainstreaming profiles a patient’s cancer, giving specialists ‘an extra piece of the jigsaw’ to decode the most effective surgery, treatment or medication. 

But it also has the potential to prevent cancer and deaths by identifying hereditary gene mutations that can be passed from patients to their children and grandchildren. 

“We are very excited about this. Reducing the time it takes to identify what form of cancer we are dealing with through swamped national services, taking two years, to just four weeks in Cork, is massive,” said CUH surgical oncologist, Professor Mark Corrigan. 

“If we can determine what specific genes are contributing to a patient’s cancer, we can use that information to modify their treatment. 

“Extra funding is extending the pilot scheme until the end of this year but we want to expand and develop it well beyond that. It is having a transformative effect on cancer care.” 

Cork mother-of-two Fiona O’Keeffe, 49, who is recovering from breast cancer, is also urging authorities to put the programme on a permanent footing. 

She was diagnosed at 46, her sister faced the same battle aged 40 and they lost their mother Mary to the disease last year. 

Fiona did not benefit from the new pilot testing scheme in CUH – instead, she was sent to Dublin for genetic testing to find the gene causing the cancer in her family – a major upheaval as it removed her from experts in Cork. 

“In that time, you lose the connection with the people that you’re used to dealing with,” she said. 

“This new clinic is so welcome as you are containing all of your care in one place so it’s less stressful. My hope is that it is here to stay to benefit the next generation.” 

CUH, the National Cancer Control Programme and the South/South West Hospital Group collaborated to get the six-month pilot project off the ground. 

But specialists are urging that national and public support through CUH Charity continues so it can remain permanently. 

During the trial, blood tests are sent from newly diagnosed patients at CUH – or those on treatment waiting lists – to a lab in mainland Europe. 

“We can now see patients, counsel them, order the test and have it back in a matter of weeks,” said Prof Corrigan, who is project lead for the pilot. 

“Consider a family who lost their mother to cancer a few years ago. Mainstreaming allows us to identify and dramatically reduce the chances of her grandchildren also losing their mother to the same outcome.” 

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