Utility of polygenic risk scores in UK cancer screening: a modelling analysis

Catherine Huntley, Bethany Torr, Amit Sud, Charlie F Rowlands, Rosalind Way, Katie Snape, Helen Hanson, Charles Swanton, John Broggio, Anneke Lucassen, Margaret McCartney, Richard S Houlston, Aroon D Hingorani, Michael E Jones, Clare Turnbull*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)
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It is proposed that, through restriction to individuals delineated as high risk, polygenic risk scores (PRSs) might enable more efficient targeting of existing cancer screening programmes and enable extension into new age ranges and disease types. To address this proposition, we present an overview of the performance of PRS tools (ie, models and sets of single nucleotide polymorphisms) alongside harms and benefits of PRS-stratified cancer screening for eight example cancers (breast, prostate, colorectal, pancreas, ovary, kidney, lung, and testicular cancer).

For this modelling analysis, we used age-stratified cancer incidences for the UK population from the National Cancer Registration Dataset (2016-18) and published estimates of the area under the receiver operating characteristic curve for current, future, and optimised PRS for each of the eight cancer types. For each of five PRS-defined high-risk quantiles (ie, the top 50%, 20%, 10%, 5%, and 1%) and according to each of the three PRS tools (ie, current, future, and optimised) for the eight cancers, we calculated the relative proportion of cancers arising, the odds ratios of a cancer arising compared with the UK population average, and the lifetime cancer risk. We examined maximal attainable rates of cancer detection by age stratum from combining PRS-based stratification with cancer screening tools and modelled the maximal impact on cancer-specific survival of hypothetical new UK programmes of PRS-stratified screening. 

The PRS-defined high-risk quintile (20%) of the population was estimated to capture 37% of breast cancer cases, 46% of prostate cancer cases, 34% of colorectal cancer cases, 29% of pancreatic cancer cases, 26% of ovarian cancer cases, 22% of renal cancer cases, 26% of lung cancer cases, and 47% of testicular cancer cases. Extending UK screening programmes to a PRS-defined high-risk quintile including people aged 40-49 years for breast cancer, 50-59 years for colorectal cancer, and 60-69 years for prostate cancer has the potential to avert, respectively, a maximum of 102, 188, and 158 deaths annually. Unstratified screening of the full population aged 48-49 years for breast cancer, 58-59 years for colorectal cancer, and 68-69 years for prostate cancer would use equivalent resources and avert, respectively, an estimated maximum of 80, 155, and 95 deaths annually. These maximal modelled numbers will be substantially attenuated by incomplete population uptake of PRS profiling and cancer screening, interval cancers, non-European ancestry, and other factors. 

Under favourable assumptions, our modelling suggests modest potential efficiency gain in cancer case detection and deaths averted for hypothetical new PRS-stratified screening programmes for breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer. Restriction of screening to high-risk quantiles means many or most incident cancers will arise in those assigned as being low-risk. To quantify real-world clinical impact, costs, and harms, UK-specific cluster-randomised trials are required.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)658-668
Number of pages11
JournalThe Lancet Oncology
Issue number6
Early online date10 May 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2023


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