As genetic counseling and genetic testing continue gaining importance in the world of cancer, the new co-director of hereditary cancers in the University of Colorado Cancer Center is aiming to increase awareness of these important resources for patients.
Marie Wood, MD, who earlier this year was named medical director of the CU Cancer Center Cancer Clinical Trials Office (CCTO), will step back into a role that she first held in the mid-1990s when she helped start the hereditary cancer program, co-directing it with Lisa Ku, MS, CGC.
“Cancer genetics is one of my passions,” Wood says. “The program here is really, really strong and has grown greatly since it was started. Genetic testing and genetic counseling are increasingly important not only for patients who do have cancer, but for people who don’t and want to make informed, evidence-based decisions about their cancer risk.”
Increasing access to genetic services
One of the first goals on which Wood hopes to partner with stakeholders is increasing access to genetic counseling and genetic testing.
“We have an incredible team of genetic counselors who work really well together and have great relationships with patients, but we just don’t have enough counselors to see everybody who needs testing,” Wood says. “We do a great job of offering these services to patients in the metro Denver area, but it is important that we work toward becoming a regional resource.”
Partnerships between health care providers and institutions will play a vital role in overcoming barriers to access in addition to making sure that we have adequate numbers of genetic counselors.
“We need to really be thinking about how we get people connected with our program and understanding barriers that may go beyond just lack of insurance,” Wood says. “There are cultural barriers, communication barriers, barriers to contacting patients. We need to be working with our partners to ensure there is access for all.”
Supporting research and clinical services
Another key goal is increasing awareness of genetic counseling and genetic testing “because there are implications of genetic test results for cancer treatment now,” Wood says.
Genetic counselors generally focus on the genetics of the person rather than the genetics of a tumor, “but we also have to consider that tumor genetics may have implications for not just how you treat the patient, but you can uncover germline genetics that are in the DNA of every cell. For example, if you see a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation in a tumor, that could also be in the person, but we have to confirm that by doing genetic testing on the person.”
In her new role, Wood aims to support ongoing clinical and lab work, and be a mentor and facilitator for research.
“In the short term, I’d like to figure out how much genetic research is happening on campus and build our program as an umbrella that encompasses it,” Wood says. “My other short-term goal is to make sure I’m supporting what is a really strong and collegial program, making sure the team feels supported.”
In the long term, Wood says she hopes to support “more research coming out of this program, which means uniting people who are doing the research, supporting grants and publications out of this program, and continuing to build what is already a really, really strong clinical program that offers important services to patients. I think we can build access into areas that are underserved and continue making genetic counseling and genetic testing an option for more people.”