DENVER, CO – A pioneering new study at Denver Health is bringing expanded genetic testing to cancer patients across Colorado. The research aims to improve treatment, early detection, and generational tracking of cancers linked to genetic mutations.
The Genetic Testing Access Initiative
The genetic testing study is being led by Dr. Sonia Okuyama, Denver Health’s chief of Oncology. She secured a research grant from the National Institutes of Health to provide free genetic screening to all breast cancer patients at Denver Health. Within two years, Dr. Okuyama plans to expand free testing to all cancer patients at the medical center.
The goal is to identify genetic factors early so doctors can better tailor treatments to patients. Genetic screening also allows for improved tracking of cancers within families.
“A lot of our patients should be getting genetic counseling and testing,” said Dr. Okuyama. “That coordination, that hand holding, that support to the patient and to the primary care provider that’s… lacking, that doesn’t exist.”
Accessing Testing Without Genetic Counselors
A major obstacle to genetic testing is the shortage of genetic counselors to guide the process. There are only about 700 genetic counselors nationwide. Most clinics require patients to meet with a counselor before getting screened.
To expand access, Denver Health is flipping the typical procedure. Dr. Okuyama is offering testing upfront to any newly diagnosed cancer patient at the medical center. Specially trained nurses then provide genetic counseling afterwards to discuss the implications.
This accessibility is unique, especially for lower income patients at safety-net hospitals like Denver Health. Dr. Okuyama aims to show genetic testing can be made more equitable.
The Research Study In Action
Inga Watford is one of the first breast cancer patients benefiting from Denver Health’s genetic research. The 49-year-old returned from vacation in February 2023 to the shocking news she had stage 4 breast cancer.
“It had metastasized into my armpit, up into my clavicle and my neck, and I was terrified,” Watford said.
After intense treatment, she is now cancer-free but ponders what caused the disease. She has no family history.
So when nurse practitioner Pam Crawford offered free genetic screening, Watford eagerly agreed. She wanted to know her risk of recurrence and whether she had a mutation that could impact relatives.
Tailoring Treatment Based on Genetics
Dr. Okuyama explains a key advantage of early testing is physicians can tailor medical therapies based on a patient’s genetics.
“There might be medications, chemo pills or IV medications, that only work if you have this genetic abnormality,” she said. “Knowing upfront will help pick the best medicine to help the patient.”
For example, the drug Lynparza is proven effective for breast cancers linked to BRCA gene mutations. Genetic screening guides doctors on when to use this targeted therapy.
Coordinating Follow-up Care
Nurse practitioner Pam Crawford provides genetic counseling and coordinates ongoing care after testing. For high-risk patients, she works with primary doctors to implement enhanced screening.
“You would do a mammogram, alternating with MRI, you do something every six months and the hope if something starts growing, we see it,” Crawford explained.
This support system is unique to Denver Health’s initiative. Dr. Okuyama says it provides critical outreach missing from typical genetic testing programs.
The Future Goals for Research
Within two years, Dr. Okuyama plans to offer testing to all cancer patients at Denver Health. She calls the center’s study the first of its kind.
“That coordination, that hand holding, that support to the patient and the primary care provider…that’s lacking, that doesn’t exist,” said Dr. Okuyama.
She aims to prove genetic screening can be systematic, efficient, and accessible at safety-net hospitals. The data collected will help quantify outcomes linked to early testing.
Dr. Okuyama says another key advantage is tracking cancers within families. When a mutation is identified, relatives can undergo targeted screening. This generational tracking will save lives.
A Patient’s Perspective
For Inga Watford, genetic knowledge brings peace of mind. Her test results came back negative for mutations.
“Relief, for sure, just to know that I did not have that mutation,” Watford said.
While perhaps not every patient wants to know their genetic risk, Watford is glad she does. Her outlook is optimistic thanks to the advanced care from Denver Health’s groundbreaking program.