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BYU, University of Washington launch initiative to prevent hereditary cancer

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Genetics/Geneology LabPhotography by BYU Photo

Many medical conditions are heredity, such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Now, two universities have teamed up to prevent cancer from being passed from parent to child.

A genetic condition occurs when an individual inherits an altered gene from parents that increases the risk of developing that particular condition. A new initiative between Brigham Young University's Center for Family History and the University of Washington helps fight hereditary cancer with family history in a project called Connect My Variant.

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Jill Crandell, director of the BYU Center for Family History and Genealogy and associate professor of family history, stated in a news release:

A number of medical conditions are hereditary, so we can learn about the immediate family medical history and inform our doctors when we visit. With DNA testing among the general population, it’s now possible to learn of hereditary diseases that have come down to us from an ancestor many generations back. It’s possible to contact distant cousins to inform each other of extended family risks. Hereditary cancer is one disease where knowing your genealogy and your extended family medical history could save your life.

Basically, the project involves people who know they have a cancer causing gene mutation working with BYU family history students to trace their gene mutation back to a common ancestor. Then, they’re able to reach out to their second and third cousins who may also be at risk of cancer and encourage them to take preventative action.

The goal is to essentially to eliminate hereditary cancer by informing people about their family history. Inherited cancer-causing gene variants (also called mutations) in genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2 cause more than a 50% lifetime risk of breast or ovarian cancer. Inherited variants in other genes cause a high risk of colon cancer and other cancers.

Identifying such variants in living relatives can help prevent cancer for a few people. Tracing the variant back to a common ancestor can help prevent cancer in dozens of people, and that's where the project comes in.

According to a press release, research starts with the BYU team working directly with the participant to gather information about their known relatives. Then, lineage research begins. BYU student researchers combine DNA and traditional genealogical research as they comb through family history records and databases at websites such as FamilySearch and Ancestry. They scour death records and obituaries to construct the participants’ family trees and trace cancer-causing variants to a common ancestor.

“Students do the research,” said Crandell in the release. “We're here to give the students mentored learning experiences to help them develop their skills beyond the classroom.”

As more participants identify a common ancestor who had the genetic mutation and connect with their living relatives who descend from that ancestor, more lives can be saved.

The Connect My Variant project is funded by the Seattle-based Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine. If you are interested in participating in the project and know of cancerous risk mutations in your family's genetic heritage, you can sign up at ConnectMyVariant.org.

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