People with a family history of breast and bowel cancer can benefit from a new computer software program which calculates their risk of developing the disease, Professor Jon Emery from The University of Western Australia said today.
Professor Emery, Chair of General Practice at UWA, was the lead researcher in a major trial funded by Cancer Research UK and Britain’s National Health Service and recently published in the British Journal of Cancer.
GPs in the East Anglia region were found to be more effective at referring patients with a family history of breast or bowel cancer when they used a new computer-based system called Genetic Risk Assessment on the Internet with Decision Support – or GRAIDS.
As a result of the trial, the Australian Government is funding the development of a national electronic family history tool, based on the GRAIDS software, for use by GPs.
“The GRAIDS system provides doctors with a user-friendly computer program designed to calculate family cancer risks for individual patients,” Professor Emery said.
“The program uses existing data on cancer risks together with information given by the patient on their family history of cancer.
“A woman with either a mother or sister who has had breast cancer, for example, has double the risk of developing the disease compared to a woman with no family history. A woman with two or more relatives affected is at even more risk.”
A total of 45 general practices participated in the British trial. Twenty-three adopted the GRAIDS system while the remaining 22 used current best practice – relying on the judgment of GPs to make referrals, aided by a paper copy of the regional referral guidelines and a 45-minute presentation on cancer genetics.
Professor Emery’s research found that compared with best practice, the GRAIDS system both increased the number of patients referred by GPs to regional genetics specialists and ensured that referrals more closely matched official referral guidelines.
“General practices using GRAIDS referred 162 patients over the trial’s 12-month period, compared with 84 patients referred by those using current best practice,” he said.
“Our study shows for the first time the value of software that assesses family history for general practice.
“The GRAIDS system resulted in significantly more referrals that were consistent with guidelines for those with a family history of breast cancer and in cases where there was a history of both breast and colon cancer in the same family.”
The GRAIDS system also produced a higher proportion of referrals meeting the criteria for increased risk – 93 per cent of those with a family history of breast cancer, 99 per cent for those with a family history of bowel cancer and 95 per cent for those with a family history of both diseases. This compared with 73 per cent, 92 per cent and 79 per cent respectively for patients referred through best practice alone.
Professor Emery said patients referred via the GRAIDS system also reported feeling less anxious about their risk of cancer.
Cancer Research UK director of cancer information, Dr Lesley Walker, said new computer technology could play a valuable role in the fight to identify disease.
“As we discover more about the genetic factors associated with cancer, GPs will be on the frontline when it comes to providing advice and support to those with a history of the disease in their families and reassuring those who may have overestimated their risk,” Dr Walker said.
“Assessment software like GRAIDS will have a significant role to play, helping to detect those at increased risk and reassuring those who are not.”
Professor Jon Emery 61 8 9449 5150
Edwin Lane (Cancer Research UK) 0207 061 8318 or 0705 026 4059 (a/h)