The Federal Government has committed $2.96 million to fund TRACEBACK, aimed at identifying unaware carriers of BRCA gene mutations and preventing future cases of ovarian and other cancers. The announcement was made this week to mark Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.

Ovarian cancer is the most lethal women’s cancer.

TRACEBACK, a ground-breaking collaboration between Peter Mac’s Prof David Bowtell and Ovarian Cancer Australia, will involve genetic testing around 1,500 tissue specimens collected from Australian women diagnosed with ovarian cancer over the past 15 years.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations occur in 15-20 per cent of women with ovarian cancer, particularly those with the most common type of ovarian cancer.  Guidelines for testing were amended in 2013 and there are thousands of women prior to that time who were untested. These gene mutations, which increase lifetime risk of ovarian and breast cancer in women and also breast, prostate and other cancers in men, are passed down through the family line.

TRACEBACK will identify previously unknown carriers of BRCA gene mutations, as well as other ovarian cancer susceptibility genes including RAD51C/D and BRIP1, allowing more families to become aware of their heightened risk and so current and future generations can consider preventive options and to be more alert to the early signs of cancer.

Head of the Women’s Cancer Program at Peter Mac, and lead investigator for TRACEBACK, Prof Bowtell, stressed the importance of finding carriers of these gene mutations.

“Importantly, if people that have these gene changes are aware, they can choose to undertake strategies to reduce their risk of developing cancer significantly. Certain new drugs also work more effectively in women with BRCA1/2 mutations, and therefore results also have important treatment implications for woman with ovarian cancer,” explained Prof Bowtell.

TRACEBACK, due to commence in early 2018, will focus on testing samples taken from women who were not assessed for genetic mutations at the time of their cancer.  The tissue samples have remained in frozen storage at Peter Mac and at pathology services throughout Australia.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are more common in ovarian cancer than any other cancer type, and therefore women who have had ovarian cancer provide an important opportunity to identify carriers of these mutations,” Prof Bowtell said.

Patients will be identified through prior enrolment in research studies involving genetic risk, referral through relatives, and through working with clinicians in specialist centres.

Family members will not be told of results directly but rather asked if they wish to learn more and if so, will be guided to centres that can provide this information and assist them through the processes of being tested themselves if needed.

In addition, TRACEBACK may assist woman with a personal history of ovarian cancer to access genetic testing.

CEO of Ovarian Cancer Australia, Jane Hill, said that TRACEBACK reinforced Ovarian Cancer Australia’s commitment to taking action and providing hope for people affected by the disease. 

“Until TRACEBACK, there has been no active program in finding women who have missed the opportunity to be tested for BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations,” Ms Hill said.

“These untested women may leave a legacy of increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer as well as other cancers in their male descendants.  Unsuspecting family members may not be aware until further diagnoses of cancer in the family.”

Chrissy Keepence, a cancer survivor whose family has been devastated by the BRCA gene, welcomed the TRACEBACK announcement.

“My mother passed away from breast cancer, my father from liver cancer and my youngest sister Elisha lost her life to ovarian cancer in 2014. My mother, younger sisters Elisha and Veronica, my son and I have all been found to carry the cancer-causing BRCA mutation,” said Chrissy.

“Learning of my BRCA status, I feel compelled to act and raise awareness. Familial BRCA testing has enabled me to take action to reduce my risk of ovarian and breast cancer by electing to have my ovaries and breasts removed. It means my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will be armed with the knowledge they need to make informed and timely health decisions.

“While my family has been devastated by the BRCA-related cancer I have hope. I am hopeful because programs like TRACEBACK will provide at-risk women and their families with the information that may just save the life of someone they love,” Ms Keepence said.

During Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, Australians are encouraged to show their support for women living with ovarian cancer by purchasing and wearing a teal ribbon, particularly on Teal Ribbon Day, Wednesday 28 February 2018.  Teal ribbons are available for $3 from TerryWhite Chemmart pharmacies and Black Pepper stores nationally, as well as from Ovarian Cancer Australia www.ovariancancer.net.au.