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Government Backs Ovarian Cancer Genetic Tracing Program

06 February 2018

~ 6 minutes

Government backs ground-breaking “TRACEBACK” program that traces back BRCA gene mutations to reduce the incidence of ovarian cancer

The Turnbull Government today announced $2.96 million to fund TRACEBACK, a ground-breaking collaboration between Ovarian Cancer Australia and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (Peter Mac) aimed at preventing cases of ovarian cancer - the most lethal women’s cancer by identifying unaware carriers of BRCA gene mutations in the Australian public.

The announcement took place at a special Teal Ribbon Breakfast attended by the Minister for Health, the Hon. Greg Hunt MP and Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Bill Shorten MP at Parliament House this morning to mark February’s Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Teal is the international colour for ovarian cancer.

Minister for Health, the Hon. Greg Hunt MP said the Turnbull Government is committed to improving outcomes for women living with, and impacted by, ovarian cancer.

“As a world-class initiative, TRACEBACK presents a multi-generational opportunity to potentially prevent thousands of cases of ovarian and breast cancer, once fully implemented,’’ the Minister said.

“It will provide women with a family history of BRCA-related cancer, and their families, the opportunity to be tested and for mutation carriers to adopt cancer risk-reducing strategies,” the Minister added.

TRACEBACK will involve genetic testing of around 1,500 tissue specimens collected from Australian women diagnosed with ovarian cancer over the past 15 years.

It is thought one in five women diagnosed with high-grade serous ovarian cancer since 2002 has an undetected BRCA gene mutation. These gene mutations, which increase the 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 is expected to identify hundreds of previously undetected BRCA gene mutations, allowing more families to become aware of their heightened risk while also providing current and future generations the opportunity to adopt strategies to reduce their cancer risk.

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.

“TRACEBACK focuses on identifying women diagnosed with ovarian cancer from 2001 to 2016. 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.

“TRACEBACK will provide Ovarian Cancer Australia and Peter Mac with the opportunity to undertake genetic testing on approximately 1,500 tumour specimens collected from ovarian cancer patients over the last 15 years.

“Consenting patients or next of kin (in the case of deceased patients) will be referred to a familial cancer centre if a BRCA gene mutation is detected. It is expected that the TRACEBACK process will encourage wider testing amongst family members,” Ms Hill added.

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

“The ramifications of knowing if one harbors a BRCA gene mutation is threefold. It enables prevention with the options of risk-reducing measures (i.e. preventative surgeries such as removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes), treatment options that specifically target the mutation, and surveillance by way of increased monitoring such as more intensive breast cancer screening,” Professor Bowtell said.

“The BRCA gene mutations increase a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer from a few per cent in the general Australian population to 59 per cent for BRCA1 and 17 per cent for BRCA2. The BRCA gene mutations can be passed on by both male and female carriers. The mutations are also linked to the occurrence of breast, prostate and pancreatic cancers. Currently in Australia, there are approximately 25,000 known patients harboring a pathogenic BRCA mutation.

“BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations occur in 15-20 per cent of women with ovarian cancer, particularly those with the high grade serous type of the disease. BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are more common in ovarian cancer than any other cancer type, and therefore women with ovarian cancer provide an important opportunity to identify carriers of these mutations,” Professor Bowtell added.

Attendees also heard from Chrissy Keepence, a cancer survivor whose family has been devastated by the BRCA gene.

“My Great Grandmother and Great Aunts all died of breast and ovarian cancer before they turned 50. We can only but assume that they unknowingly harbored the BRCA gene,” Ms Keepence said.

“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 gene mutations.

“Learning of my BRCA status, I feel compelled to act and raise awareness. When you don’t know, you can only wonder, but once you do know, you have this moral obligation to the people you love and have lost to actively do something about it.

“That’s why my family always talk about how blessed we are to have this knowledge. 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 concluded.

In 2018, 1600 Australian women are expected to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and it is estimated that more than 1000 will die from the disease.

In recognition of February’s Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, all 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.

TRACEBACK is a program co-led by the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Ovarian Cancer Australia and will commence in mid-2018.

TRACEBACK is just one of many high-impact research initiatives being undertaken by Ovarian Cancer Australia to improve outcomes for women affected by ovarian cancer. Other projects include the Jewish BRCA screening pilot program and Ovarian Cancer Registry.

The four key symptoms of ovarian cancer are:

  • Abdominal or pelvic pain;

  • Increased abdominal size or persistent abdominal bloating;

  • The need to urinate often or urgently; and

  • Feeling full after eating a small amount.

Acknowledgement flags

Ovarian Cancer Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land where our office is located, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation and we pay our respects to Elders past and present.