The defective BRIP1 gene prevents cells carrying out proper repairs to their DNA, eventually leading to cancer.
Around 32,500 women are unknowingly carrying a faulty gene which increases their risk of developing ovarian cancer by three-fold, scientists have found.
Around 1.8 women in every 100 develops the disease. But this risk increases to around 5.8 women in every 100 who have the mutated BRIP1 gene.
It’s estimated that one in every 1,000 UK women have the gene fault.
The defective gene prevents cells carrying out proper repairs to their DNA, eventually leading to cancer.
Researchers also found that women with the mutation were more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive, later stage ovarian cancers at an older age.
Professor Paul Pharoah, from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, said: “Our work has found a valuable piece of the puzzle behind ovarian cancer and we hope that our work could eventually form the basis of a genetic test to identify women at greatest risk.
“Finding these women will help us prevent more cancers and save lives. This would be important in a disease like ovarian cancer, which tends to be diagnosed at a late stage when the chances of survival are worse.”
More than 7,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year and more than 4,000 will die from the disease, most because it was picked up too late for treatments to be effective.
About 90 in 100 women survive early-stage ovarian cancer for five years or more, compared to just three in 100 with late-stage disease.
Nell Barrie, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information manager, said: “Research like this, which looks at inherited genetic changes and how they can affect a woman’s risk, is vital. We urgently need ways to detect ovarian cancer early, as the cancer is often diagnosed when it’s too late for effective treatment because the cancer has already spread. ”
“We hope this research will lead to a reliable way to spot women at a high risk, so they can be monitored to find any signs of the disease at an early stage.”
Previous research has already identified that mutations to the BRCA gene – the Jolie gene – puts women at risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Angelina Jolie, the actress opted for a double mastectomy and hysterectomy after learning she carried the mutation.
It is hoped that eventually screening could be introduced which would help women understand their risk so they could make similar choices
The findings are reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.