Diagnostics

Genetics company Counsyl targets oncologists in bid to boost patient screening

The goal of this new initiative is to make it easier for oncologists to have their patients tested for genetic mutations linked to cancer.

From left to right, Counsyl founders Rishi Kacker, Ramji Srinivasan and Eric Evans

From left to right, Counsyl founders Rishi Kacker, Ramji Srinivasan and Eric Evans

Up to 10 percent of cancers may be caused by inherited genetic mutations, and Counsyl, which provides genetic testing and telephone-based genetic counseling services, is courting oncologists in a bid to reach more patients who might have genetic mutations linked to breast, ovarian, prostate and other kinds of cancers.

Until this year, San Francisco-based Counsyl, which was established in 2007, has marketed its family planning, pregnancy and inherited cancer genetic screening products to obstetricians and gynecologists. However, last month, Counsyl announced that is launching an oncology business unit and expanding from 24 to 36 the genetic mutations its inherited cancer screening product tests for. That followed news in April that the Peter Thiel-backed company had cut its sales, marketing, design and engineering staff.

The goal of this new initiative is to make it easier for oncologists to have their patients tested for genetic mutations linked to cancer, said Kaylene Ready, Counsyl’s director of inherited cancer.

“Physicians are busy. They are trying to manage a lot of things for an oncology patient and they need some sort of systematic way to identify patients,” said Ready, a certified genetic counselor.

In addition to starting an oncology business unit, Counsyl is pilot testing FirstCare, an online patient survey that assesses a person’s risk for hereditary cancers. FirstCare, which is being tested at Sutter Gould Medical Foundation, helps patients and their doctors determine if an individual should undergo genetic testing for inherited genetic mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 that may increase their risk of developing certain types of cancers.

Unlike online genetic risk quizzes that patients can easily find through an Internet search, the FirstCare assessment is physician-directed.

In the pilot program at Sutter, physicians send patients already scheduled for an appointment a text message or email with a link to the FirstCare survey. After the patient completes the survey on their computer or smartphone, the results are shared with the patient’s doctor. The patient is also given information to help them put the results in context.

“If we identify someone who is potentially at increased risk, we provide information about why that is,” said Ready. “We also provide them with information about testing so they are going into that first appointment at least somewhat informed about the benefits, limitations and possible results of genetic testing.”

If a patient does undergo genetic testing, he or she can talk to a certified genetic counselor by phone almost immediately after learning the results, Ready said.

The catalyst for FirstCare was a 2015 study that found that only 20 percent of women at high risk of ovarian cancer based on family history were referred to genetic counseling and just 9.5 percent were tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations associated with breast and ovarian cancers, explained Ready.

“We recognized that huge gap between the number of individuals who could benefit and the number who are being told about and moving forward with testing,” Ready said.

FirstCare is free for both patients and physicians. Ready cautioned, however, that the software tool won’t be widely available to patients and physicians at other health systems until it is fine-tuned based on feedback from Sutter patients and physicians.

Photo: Counsyl