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How family history can help end hereditary cancer

Mar 26, 2021, 11:39 AM
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(Left to Right) - Julie Stoddard and Jill Crandall: Genealogy to Prevent Hereditary Cancer 2103-25 Genetics/Geneology Lab Photo Illustration by Tyler Richardson/BYU Photo © BYU PHOTO 2018 All Rights Reserved photo@byu.edu (801) 422-7322 Used with permission.
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PROVO, Utah — Scientists in Washington and genealogists in Utah are working together to fight cancer with family history.

Genealogists at BYU’s Center for Family History and Genealogy and the University of Washington teamed up in a public health initiative aimed at preventing hereditary cancer.

Connecting cancer and family history

The partnership between the schools is called “Connect My Variant.” It aims to connect what researchers already know about cancer-causing gene variants, and where they may have started in the family tree.

“A number of medical conditions are hereditary, so we can learn about the immediate family medical history and inform our doctors when we visit,” Jill Crandell, director of the BYU’s CFHG said in a release.

“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.”

An end to hereditary cancer? 

Finding that connection, and sharing that information with descendants, is something that University of Washington’s Dr. Brian Shirts said could potentially end hereditary cancer.

“Oftentimes, someone knows they’ve got a history of cancer in their family and can talk to their doctor and take preventative action,” said Shirts. “They can tell their relatives and help save their lives as well.”

Researchers already know how mutations or variations in some specific genes can dramatically increase the chance of cancer. Finding those variants in a living person can mean they can share that information with other relatives. 

But pairing that information with genealogy and tracing it back to a shared ancestor could help far more individuals.

Heart of Utah: Elevating Black family history and connecting to the past

“After Dr. Shirts identifies participants who have the variant, he sends them to our team at BYU. We’re able to do the research on their family lines and help identify which ancestor may have had the variant,” Crandell said.

“Once we’ve identified the ancestor, we can do research and find relatives that the participant can contact and tell them of their potential increased chance of cancer. This is helpful because most people don’t know their relatives beyond first cousins.”

How students help

Students in the genealogy program work through family history records and obituaries. Those, coupled with DNA research, help create an accurate picture of a common ancestor who may share the cancer-causing variation.

“BYU has the best genealogy program in the world, so it made sense for a partnership on this project,” Shirts said.

“Knowing your family history is important, but knowing how you might be impacted by your heritage and using that information to help save the life of one of your cousins is impactful,” said Shirts.

Jill Crandell will join LiveMic with Lee Lonsberry on Friday at 1:50 to discuss the research at BYU. You can listen to that conversation here.

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How family history can help end hereditary cancer