Personal Genetics Education Project

Current Genetics Update – Teaching about BRCA and risk in the classroom

Movie star and philanthropist Angelina Jolie’s recent disclosure in the New York Times that she underwent a preventative double mastectomy to lower her risk of breast cancer has put genetic testing in the limelight in a way that doesn’t happen very often. pgEd appreciates Jolie’s and many other’s effort to present this story and more broadly – a conversation about genetics and risk –  in an accurate and data-driven context.

BRCA genes have been in the news for years – but never before (I think) in People Magazine. Having certain variants in one’s BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 genes – genes that everyone has, including men – significantly elevates one’s chance of getting breast or ovarian cancer. BRCA genes are involved with DNA repair and tumor suppression, and the National Cancer Institute has an overview of the science and statistics around risk and BRCA. This has been repeated in many of the articles, but it is worth mentioning again. Only 5-10% of women diagnosed with breast cancer carry a deleterious BRCA variant, so the vast majority (90-95%) do not. So what accounts for all those other cancers?

This is a great way to tackle the concepts of genetic complexity, environmental links to cancer, and emerging research on other genes and clusters of genes related to cancer.

Since school is almost out, the tried-and-true instinct to show a documentary or other sort of educational show is one with which we are familiar. In the Family is a documentary that highlights the personal and familial dilemmas and options in genetic testing for BRCA. It is very moving and scientifically accurate, although it is at times very emotionally challenging and may not be a perfect fit for younger students.

Finally – BRCA1 and BRCA2 have been in the news for another reason this spring. The Supreme Court is currently deliberating on the legality of patents, focusing on Myriad Genetics and its patent on the BRCA genes. Coverage of this story can be found in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and also the Genomic Law Report. We have found that the legal questions around patenting human genes are a great, engaging topic on which students have many opinions and insights. Also a great discussion not just for Biology class, but for Law, Government, Politics, or History.