Background: Since the human genome has been sequenced many mysteries of cell biology have been unravelled, thereby clarifying the pathogenesis of several diseases, particularly cancer. In members of kindreds with certain hereditary diseases, it is now possible early in life to predict with great certainty whether or not a family member has inherited the mutated allele causing the disease. In hereditary malignancies this has been particularly important, because in affected family members there is the possibility of removing the organ destined to develop cancer before malignancy develops or while it is in situ. At first consideration, it would appear that "prophylactic surgery" would have a place in many hereditary malignancies; however, the procedure has applicability only if certain criteria are met: (1) the genetic mutation causing the hereditary malignancy must have a very high penetrance and be expressed regardless of environmental factors; (2) there must be a highly reliable test to identify patients who have inherited the mutated gene; (3) the organ must be removed with minimal morbidity and virtually no mortality; (4) there must be a suitable replacement for the function of the removed organ; and (5) there must be a reliable method of determining over time that the patient has been cured by "prophylactic surgery."
Conclusions: In this monograph we review several hereditary malignancies and consider those where prophylactic surgery might be useful. As we learn, there are various barriers to performing the procedure in many common hereditary cancer syndromes. The archetype disease syndromes, which meet each of the five criteria mentioned above and where prophylactic surgery is most useful, are the type 2 multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN) syndromes: MEN2A, MEN2B, and the related familial medullary thyroid carcinoma. An additional benefit of the Human Genome Project, has been the development of pharmacologic and biologic compounds that block the metabolic pathway(s) activated by specific genetic mutations. Many of these compounds have shown efficacy in patients with locally advanced or metastatic cancers, and there is the likelihood that they will prove beneficial in preventing the outgrowth of malignant cells in patients destined to develop a hereditary cancer.