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Myriad Starts Direct-To-Consumer Advertising Of Breast Cancer Gene Test

Armen Hareyan's picture

Myriad Genetic Laboratories on Monday began a direct-to-consumer advertising campaign in Boston; Hartford, Conn.; New York City; and Providence, R.I., of its genetic test, BRCAnalysis, which identifies the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations, the Wall Street Journal reports.

According to Myriad, women with certain BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations have a 56% to 87% risk of developing breast cancer and a 27% to 44% increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. Women in the general population have about a 7% risk of developing breast cancer and less than 2% risk of developing ovarian cancer, the company says (Chase, Wall Street Journal, 9/11). BRCA mutations account for fewer than 10% of breast cancer cases, and about one in 400 women are living with the mutation, the New York Times reports.

Myriad's campaign includes television commercials, and magazine and radio advertisements and carries the slogan, "Be ready against cancer." The campaign is scheduled to last six months and is targeted toward women ages 25 to 55, according to the Times. Myriad in late 2002 and early 2003 ran the commercials in a five-month test in Denver and Atlanta. According to the company, there were 38 times more calls to Myriad's toll free number and 30% more women tested in those cities, compared with control cities.

The commercial encourages women to contact their physicians for more information about the test or call its toll-free number (Pollack, New York Times, 9/11). It features six women saying "breast cancer runs in my family" and vowing to "be ready against cancer" by taking the test. Myriad hopes to extend the campaign nationwide, the Journal reports.

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The test costs between $300 and $3,000, depending on the level of genetic sequencing performed. According to the Journal, most insurance companies will cover the cost for women who have a family history of breast cancer.

Criticism, Connecticut Investigation, Reaction
The campaign is "reigniting a debate" over who should receive the test and whether women at low risk of developing breast cancer will take "drastic measures" to prevent the disease, the Journal reports.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) recently said his office is investigating the accuracy of claims Myriad makes about the test in the ads, including issuing a subpoena for information about the ads. Blumenthal said his office has received complaints from professional caregivers, clinicians and scientists who believe the test has a "very high potential for misinterpretation and overreaction." Gregory Critchfield, president of Myriad, said the company is "cooperating fully" with Connecticut officials (Wall Street Journal, 9/11).

According to the Times, some critics of the campaign have said that advertising the "complex" screening test to the general population might create "unnecessary anxiety" and lead to its overuse. Some experts also are concerned that there might not be enough trained genetic counselors to handle the increased demand that could follow the campaign (New York Times, 9/11). "Marketing has the capacity to raise public awareness -- a good thing," Alan Guttmacher, deputy director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said. Guttmacher added, however, that "with BRCA1 and 2, people can get uncertain test results. What do you do with that information?"

Critchfield said the company estimates that only about 3% of women with the mutations have been identified, adding that it is "important to find these individuals because there are interventions that can lower their risk" (Wall Street Journal, 9/11). According to Myriad, about 200,000 women have received the test since 1996 and there is a need for more extensive testing. Women who are found to have the mutations can reduce their cancer risk by taking cancer-prevention drugs, being screened more often, or having their breasts or ovaries removed (New York Times, 9/11).

Reprinted with permission from kaisernetwork.org. You can view the entire Kaiser Weekly Health Disparities Report, search the archives. The Kaiser Weekly Health Disparities Report is published for kaisernetwork.org, a free service of The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. 2007 Advisory Board Company and Kaiser Family Foundation. All rights reserved.