April 20, 2024
AdventHealth Clinical Research Unit

Photo: AdventHealth

Samantha Arceneaux
Samantha Arceneaux learned through genetic testing that she will one day develop an aggressive form of thyroid cancer. Her doctors plan to tackle it early.

Photo: Samantha Arceneaux

Cancer Care

Early Warning System

AdventHealth is using genetic testing to catch some cancers earlier, at more treatable stages.

Tim Barker | 1/10/2024

It was almost by accident that genetic testing changed Samantha Arceneaux’s life.

Her journey started several years ago when she was tested at AdventHealth while researching possible causes for her young daughter’s type 1 diabetes. Her quest took an unrelated and surprising turn in 2021, when the hospital informed her that a follow-up analysis revealed that she carries a genetic variant that virtually guarantees she will develop an aggressive form of thyroid cancer at some point in her life.

It’s a type of cancer that often goes undetected until it reaches advanced stages when it is more difficult to treat. That won’t be the case for Arceneaux, 39, of Lake Mary, who is now working with a team at AdventHealth to watch for the first signs of trouble.

“As soon as something starts developing, they'll know to remove my thyroid while it's still very early and before it ever gets to stage 4,” Arceneaux says. “It was definitely eye opening to know I have this cancer risk, because there was no family history.”

Arceneaux’s experience illustrates one element of genetic testing’s potential in the realm of personalized medicine, where each patient — in theory — can benefit from a treatment plan designed around the thousands of genes and variants that make each of us as unique as a fingerprint.

Genetic testing has become increasingly important both for treatment and prevention of cancer.

For patients like Arceneaux, it can serve as an early warning system, allowing doctors to catch cancers when they’re more treatable, before they’ve had a chance to grow and spread.

But even in cases where the cancer is well established, testing the tumor itself can help doctors exploit its weaknesses, says Wes Walker, director of genomics and personalized health at AdventHealth Central Florida Division.

“We’re able to target that specific molecular abnormality with a specific medication,” Walker says. “It's treating it with a laser as opposed to a hammer, which can cause lots of collateral damage. The laser is much more precise.”

Test results can also be valuable to children and other family members, who may not know they have the same dangerous genetic variant, says Amanda Caceres, oncology genetic counseling manager at AdventHealth Central Florida Division.

“If they also have that same positive genetic test result, they can follow the screening recommendations, whether that be early breast MRIs and mammograms, early prostate cancer screenings or whatever the case is,” Caceres says.

Genetic testing also is making an impact with the hospital’s cancer research unit in Celebration, where multiple clinical trials are employing some degree of genetic testing.

And with test costs dropping year over year, Walker sees it as just a matter of time before it becomes a standard part of medical care, in much the same way that cholesterol tests are used today to keep an eye on our cardiovascular health. There remain some legal and ethical hurdles to overcome, but some version of genetic testing may one day accompany the screening already performed on every child at birth.

“I think we’ll get there,” Walker says. “Probably in the next 10 to 15 years, it’ll become standard for all newborns.”

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