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Ovarian Cancer Caused by Flawed Gene Less Aggressive Than Usual

November 7, 1996

BOSTON (AP) _ Doctors have found one small bit of good news for women who inherit a genetic susceptibility to ovarian cancer: Their form of the disease is less aggressive than usual.

Women who are born with this tendency, which results from a flaw in a gene called BRCA1, face about a 65 percent lifetime risk of getting ovarian cancer and an 85 percent risk of breast cancer. There is a 95 percent risk they will get one or the other.

In the latest study, doctors attempted to see if the type of ovarian cancer these women get is as quickly lethal as the form suffered by women who have normal BRCA1 genes.

They found that ovarian cancer victims with the bad gene survived an average of six years, compared with about two years for other victims.

Experts believe about 10 percent of all ovarian cancer results from an inherited predisposition, and 80 percent to 90 percent of this is caused by BRCA1. The American Cancer Society estimates that 26,700 cases of ovarian cancer will be reported this year in the United States.

``It’s hard to find much encouraging when talking about this, but women who get these (inherited) cancers can be a little bit encouraged that their outlook is better than that for the typical ovarian cancer patient,″ said Dr. Stephen Rubin of the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center.

Rubin’s study did not investigate what happens to these women when they get breast cancer, but preliminary evidence from other research suggests this disease is less aggressive, too.

Rubin’s study, based on 53 ovarian cancer patients with bad BRCA1 genes, was published in today’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

``This is the first study of any size that looks at clinical outcomes in patients with these mutations. It’s a very significant publication,″ said Dr. Richard Buller, director of gynecological surgery at the University of Iowa.

Some women who discover they have the genetic flaw get their ovaries removed as a precaution to prevent the development of cancer. The new study found that women with defective BRCA1 genes almost never get cancer before age 35.

``We believe that women who have the mutation have some time to complete their families, if they wish, before they think about things like prophylactic removal of their ovaries,″ said Rubin.

Flaws in BRCA1 are most common in Jewish women of Eastern European descent. Screening tests are now available that reveal whether women inherited the bad gene.

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