Predicting cancer risk

An open-source software package incorporates data on a wide range of genetic mutations and cancer types to provide more accurate cancer risk prediction profiles for individuals with a family history of cancer.

Image credit: Tyler Nix (CC0)

Genetic mutations that increase cancer risk can be passed down from parents to their children, which can affect families across many generations. In these families, multiple members may be affected by different types of cancer, and these cancers often develop at an early age. Unaffected family members are often referred to genetic counselling, where they can explore their own risk of cancer. Clinicians and genetic counselors can provide recommendations to minimize cancer risk and inform personal choices on how to manage that risk, such as opting for preventative surgeries or participating in regular screening.

In genetic counselling sessions, highly trained clinicians and specialists use software that takes an individual’s family history of cancer and uses it to estimate their individual risk of carrying certain genetic mutations. These estimates can in turn help to predict their future risk of cancer. Many existing software packages are limited to estimating risks based on mutations in well-known cancer-related genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 in breast and ovarian cancer. However, emerging evidence suggests that many of the genes associated with cancer risk work as part of a complex and overlapping network. Since current risk-profiling software packages are only designed to consider such genes in isolation, they cannot generate the most robust, accurate or comprehensive cancer risk profiles.

To address this challenge, Lee, Liang et al. have developed a new risk-profiling software that can integrate a large number of gene mutations and a wide range of potential cancer types to provide more accurate estimates of individual cancer risk. This software, called PanelPRO, uses evidence identified from extensive literature reviews to model the complex interplay between genes and cancer risk. The software not only calculates risks based on known genes, but also allows other developers to integrate new cancer-related genes that may be identified in the future. Importantly, the software is compatible with genetic counselling applications, since it returns answers within seconds when reasonable family and gene database sizes are used.

PanelPRO is a new, modern, flexible and efficient software package that provides an important advance towards modelling the vast genetic and biological complexity that contributes to inherited cancer risk. This software is designed to provide a more accurate and comprehensive estimate of cancer risk for individuals with family histories of cancer.

As an open-source software, it is freely available for research purposes, and can be licensed by software companies and healthcare organizations to integrate electronic patient records and rapidly identify at-risk individuals across larger patient groups. Ultimately, this software has the potential to improve cancer prevention strategies and optimize the personalized decision-making processes around cancer risk.