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Larissa Peck and Dr. Raymond Kim at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto on Oct. 16.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre is offering advanced genetic testing to all breast cancer patients as part of a new program that’s the first of its kind in Canada.

The pilot, which launched last month, will help clinicians pinpoint which treatments may be most effective and help patients understand the role genetics may have played in the development of their disease.

If an individual’s cancer has a genetic link, it could prompt their family members to undergo pro-active testing and help them make informed decisions about the increased risk they face. On a broader scale, the decision to test wide swaths of the breast cancer patient population could help researchers make new discoveries about the role certain genes play in breast cancer.

“We’re pushing the envelope,” said Raymond Kim, medical geneticist and medical director of Cancer Early Detection and the Bhalwani Familial Cancer Clinic at Princess Margaret. “It’s a real opportunity to understand the biology of cancer.”

Princess Margaret sees more than 1,000 breast cancer patients every year. Of those, only about 300 meet the province’s criteria for genetic testing, according to Dr. Kim – people whose family history showed a tendency to the disease; people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent; and/or people who had been diagnosed at a young age.

The new program at Princess Margaret lets individuals opt for screening of 75 genes, some of which are strongly linked to breast cancer and others that are not, in hopes of better understanding the disease.

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The program is being funded by donations from the Bhalwani Family Charitable Foundation and the Karen Green and George Fischer Genomics and Genetics Fund.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Dr. Kim said compared with several years ago, it’s relatively easy and cost efficient to conduct such tests, especially considering the value the results can bring to patients, clinicians and the research community.

A week into the pilot project last month, 30 patients had already enrolled in the program, dubbed UNIFY, according to Larissa Peck, genetic counsellor with the Bhalwani Familial Cancer Clinic.

Dr. Kim and his team collaborated with oncologists so they can order the gene testing themselves, instead of referring patients to a separate genetics team.

Every patient who participates will receive a copy of their genetic testing report, and relevant results will be incorporated into their treatment plan. For instance, drugs known as PARP inhibitors are often used in the treatment of hereditary breast cancer.

The program is being funded by donations from the Bhalwani Family Charitable Foundation and the Karen Green and George Fischer Genomics and Genetics Fund.

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