The study took four years, but researchers at Mayo Clinic -- and across the country -- say the results will help find those who are most at risk for certain cancers get the testing they need before the disease surfaces.
According to the study's authors, the development could double the effectiveness of tests that tell whether a patient is at risk for breast cancer, and it may also help develop drugs to prevent cancer in the first place.
For years, doctors have turned to breast exams and mammograms to find the early warning signs of breast cancer. Now, researchers at the Mayo Clinic have found a new way to tell if someone is at risk for potentially-deadly cancers.
Dr. Fergus Couch is one of the lead researchers for a huge international effort that involved 100 institutions and genetic tests on 200,000 people. That study helped uncover 49 genetic markers that can help predict whether someone will get cancer in the future.
"We don't understand the underlying biology -- how the genes are altered or how it drives them to become a tumor," Couch explained. "At this point, all we know is they are associated with increased risk."
The average woman has a 12 percent chance of getting breast cancer, but that number jumps to 65 percent if she has one of the two genes doctors can already screen for. According to couch, the newly discovered genetic markers can help determine someone's individual risk and help them make better health decisions.
"At 65 percent, people have ovaries and breasts removed so they don't get it in the future. If you are as low as 20 percent, maybe you don't," he explained. "Maybe you get more mammograms and MRI's and forgo surgery for the moment. If you are at 90 percent, you probably want to do something sooner."
Yet, Christine Norton, of the Minnesota Breast Cancer Coalition, urged greeting the study with caution because even if doctors can create more accurate tests, it may be years before they make their way to a clinic near you.
"There's a glimmer of possibility that this could be useful in the future, but I'm very hesitant to get people's hopes up because of past situations with this type of thing" she said.
The study also found genetic markers for ovarian and prostate cancers as well, and Couch said researchers are already embarking on another larger study to validate the results. If that happens, he says a more accurate screening test could be a couple of years away.