Genetic testing for BRCA mutations
In 1995, an ICR team including Professor Alan Ashworth, our former Chief Executive, won the race to identify the gene BRCA2, which is associated with increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer – following the discovery of the gene’s location by another ICR team led by Professor Sir Mike Stratton.
This work and other, later studies laid the foundation for testing for BRCA mutations, which is now recommended as standard for many women treated for ovarian cancer on the NHS.
In 2005, an ICR team led by Professor Alan Ashworth found that cancer cells that lacked either BRCA mutations were highly sensitive to drugs that inhibit PARP – another molecule used to repair faulty DNA.
Normal cells were left relatively unharmed by this new class of targeted drugs as their BRCA genes were able repair their DNA even when PARP function was blocked.
Scientists at the ICR including Professors Alan Ashworth, Andrew Tutt and Chris Lord have played a major role in the science underpinning the discovery and development of PARP inhibitors – and in particular one called olaparib.
Olaparib is now available on the NHS to treat advanced, chemotherapy-resistant ovarian cancer in women who inherit mutations in one of the BRCA genes.
The ICR is an international leader in the development of ‘liquid biopsies’ - blood tests that detect traces of cancer circulating round the body and tell researchers how a cancer is changing. These tests can detect changes more quickly, simply and less invasively than standard tests like traditional biopsies and scans.
One recent study, led by our researchers in collaboration with colleagues at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and The Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre in New York, showed a new liquid biopsy can detect changes to mutated BRCA genes in ovarian cancers – as an early warning that they are becoming drug resistant.
Promising new drug
Dr Udai Banerji is leading a team that is developing a new, targeted drug for ovarian cancer that works in a different way to any other existing drug, and was discovered at the ICR.
Initial results from the first trial of this experimental drug – called CT900 (formerly BTG945) – made a big impact at one of the world’s biggest cancer conferences in 2018, showing that the drug was not only safe but had highly promising signs of effectiveness.
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