Variants of uncertain significance in BRCA: a harbinger of ethical and policy issues to come?

Genome Med. 2014 Dec 19;6(12):121. doi: 10.1186/s13073-014-0121-3. eCollection 2014.


After two decades of genetic testing and research, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are two of the most well-characterized genes in the human genome. As a result, variants of uncertain significance (VUS; also called variants of unknown significance) are reported less frequently than for genes that have been less thoroughly studied. However, VUS continue to be uncovered, even for BRCA1/2. The increasing use of multi-gene panels and whole-genome and whole-exome sequencing will lead to higher rates of VUS detection because more genes are being tested, and most genomic loci have been far less intensively characterized than BRCA1/2. In this article, we draw attention to ethical and policy-related issues that will emerge. Experience garnered from BRCA1/2 testing is a useful introduction to the challenges of detecting VUS in other genetic testing contexts, while features unique to BRCA1/2 suggest key differences between the BRCA experience and the current challenges of multi-gene panels in clinical care. We propose lines of research and policy development, emphasizing the importance of pooling data into a centralized open-access database for the storage of gene variants to improve VUS interpretation. In addition, establishing ethical norms and regulated practices for sharing and curating data, analytical algorithms, interpretive frameworks and patient re-contact are important policy areas.