Future of X-rays called into question amid breast cancer fears

Research reveals women with faulty BRCA genes have greater chance of developing breast cancer after exposure to radiation

The future use of X-ray technology in health services across the UK is being reconsidered after research revealed that women under the age of 30 who have faulty BRCA genes are more likely to develop breast cancer if they are exposed to radiation.

An international study, part funded by Cancer Research UK and led by the University of Cambridge in association with The Institute of Cancer Research and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, St Mary’s Hospital and Addenbrookes Hospital, looked at almost 2,000 women with known BRCA faults between 2006-2009 to see if variations in their DNA increased the risk of breast cancer after exposure to low doses of radiation.

Women with faults in these genes are less able to repair damage caused by radiation, so they are at a greater risk of developing breast cancer. It’s important that these women and their doctors are aware of this

And it found that women under the age of 30 who were exposed to chest X-rays and other radiation procedures were 43% more likely to develop breast cancer, compared with women with the same faults who were not exposed. However, this increased risk did not apply to procedures carried out in women over 30.

Previous research has shown that around 2% of breast cancers are caused by BRCA faults, and women with these faults have a 45%-65% chance of developing the disease.

This research highlights that young women with a faulty BRCA gene are potentially more sensitive to low doses of radiation and doctors need to be aware of these risks when considering procedures using X-rays

The finding could have an impact on current screening methods in the UK as at present women with BRCA faults are only screened for breast cancer after they are 30. The test uses MRI technology, which does not expose patients to radiation.

Study author, Professor Douglas Easton, a Cancer Research UK scientist at the University of Cambridge, said: “BRCA genes help to repair DNA damage – damage that can be caused by exposure to radiation like X-rays. Women with faults in these genes are less able to repair damage caused by radiation, so they are at a greater risk of developing breast cancer. It’s important that these women and their doctors are aware of this.”

Dr Julie Sharp, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, added: “This research highlights that young women with a faulty BRCA gene are potentially more sensitive to low doses of radiation and doctors need to be aware of these risks when considering procedures using X-rays. In the UK younger women are already screened using MRI scans rather than mammograms to avoid these risks, but this isn’t the case in all countries yet.”

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