A NETWORK of health clinics for people who fear they may be at risk of cancer because their family has a history of the disease is being piloted by St George’s Hospital, London.

The clinics, which will run at three GP surgeries and two hospitals in the South East of England, will measure the risk patients face from cancer based on research into the medical histories of their families.

Run by a nurse counsellor, the clinics will look for signs of mutated DNA in a patient’s family which could mean that person is more vulnerable to the disease.

These genetic markers include a branch of a family with several cases of the same type of cancer, cancers that develop in relatives of a young age – below the age of 40, for example – and a close relative with the disease such as a parent or sibling.

Cancer currently affects one in three people in the UK.

However, doctors believe only a handful of sufferers – less than one in 20 people with cancer – develop the disease as the result of a gene mutation passed down through their family.

Patients of the pilot clinics who are found to be at risk will be offered further genetic screening, counselling and advice.

The pilot service run by St George’s and funded by Macmillan Cancer Relief will be available at three GP surgeries in Banstead, Wandsworth and Battersea. Clinics will also be held at the Mayday Hospital in Croydon and Epsom Hospital in Surrey.

If successful, the pilot could lead to similar clinics springing up across the region.

Professor Shirley Hodgson, an expert in medical genetics and Chair of Cancer Genetics at St George’s Hospital Medical School, describes what the clinics will offer patients:

‘Ever since scientists and researchers began to understand how genes make us susceptible to common diseases, genetics has emerged as a leading medical specialty capable of predicting people’s long-term health problems.

‘More and more patients are starting to see the benefits that genetics has to offer.

‘These pilot clinics are a great opportunity for us to explore how we can offer those benefits out in the community rather than from inside a hospital.

‘In most cases, patients will come to the clinic for reassurance. Hopefully we can put their minds at rest.

‘But in a few cases, we may see patients who are unaware of the increased risk they face from cancer.

‘And it will be these cases where the clinics will really prove its worth.

‘We will be able to identify patients at an increased risk of cancer and detect the disease sooner than we would have done in the past.

‘We can then refer them on for further testing but also give them the advice about what they need to do to delay the onset of cancer.’

But the information given out by the nurse counsellor comes with a health warning, as Professor Hodgson explains:

‘We believe only 5 per cent of people with cancer develop the disease because of a mutated gene passed down through their family.

‘The majority of people who have relatives with cancer will not be at an increased risk.

‘This does not mean that every patient who inherits mutated genes will definitely develop cancer. It means they are more likely to develop it. It’s a question of susceptibility which is what we will be looking for in patients coming to the clinics.’

St George’s Hospital is the primary genetics centre for the South West Thames area – a region which covers South West London, Surrey and West Sussex.