Multiplex ligation-dependent probe amplification (MLPA) is a recently described method for detecting gross deletions or duplications of DNA sequences, aberrations which are commonly overlooked by standard diagnostic analysis. To determine the incidence of copy number variants in cancer predisposition genes from families in the Wessex region, we have analysed the hMLH1 and hMSH2 genes in patients with hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), BRCA1 and BRCA2 in families with hereditary breast/ovarian cancer (BRCA) and APC in patients with familial adenomatous polyposis coli (FAP). Hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (n=162) and FAP (n=74) probands were fully screened for small mutations, and cases for which no causative abnormality were found (HNPCC, n=122; FAP, n=24) were screened by MLPA. Complete or partial gene deletions were identified in seven cases for hMSH2 (5.7% of mutation-negative HNPCC; 4.3% of all HNPCC), no cases for hMLH1 and six cases for APC (25% of mutation negative FAP; 8% of all FAP). For BRCA1 and BRCA2, a partial mutation screen was performed and 136 mutation-negative cases were selected for MLPA. Five deletions and one duplication were found for BRCA1 (4.4% of mutation-negative BRCA cases) and one deletion for BRCA2 (0.7% of mutation-negative BRCA cases). Cost analysis indicates it is marginally more cost effective to perform MLPA prior to point mutation screening, but the main advantage gained by prescreening is a greatly reduced reporting time for the patients who are positive. These data demonstrate that dosage analysis is an essential component of genetic screening for cancer predisposition genes.