Information for Health Professionals

Inherited predisposition to colorectal cancer in patients without multiple polyps


Lynch Syndrome / Hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) and related syndromes

Lynch Syndrome (also known as Hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer(HNPCC; OMIM 120435)) accounts for approximately 2.2-4% of all colorectal cancer (Hampel et al. 2005).  Lynch Syndrome is a familial cancer syndrome which accounts for approximately 2-3% of all colorectal cancer in the UK.  It has formerly been known as Hereditary Non-Polyposis Colorectal Cancer Syndrome (HNPCC), however the phenotype is more complex with multiple extracolonic tumours, for example, so this term has now been largely abandoned.

An Irish family tree with Lynch Syndrome caused by an inherited mutation in MSH2.  Members of this family are affected predominantly with colorectal cancer (CRC), but also small bowel cancer (SBCa), Gastric, Pancreatic, Uterine and other cancers, as well as conditions not linked to Lynch Syndrome such as Crohn’s disease.

LS is an autosomally dominant inherited condition commonly caused by germline mutation in one of four DNA mismatch repair genes, MLH1, MSH2, MSH6 and PMS2.  A minority of these families may be identified because they have multiple affected members diagnosed at an early age.   The Amsterdam Criteria I and II (Vasen et al. 1993; Vasen et al. 1999)(see below) identify patients for colonoscopic and other screening.  Approximately 40-80% of patients meet these criteria, with 50% of the remainder meeting the modified criteria which include extracolonic cancers.  The revised Bethesda criteria (Umar et al. 2004) are used to identify patients for molecular screening of HNPCC, i.e. microsatellite instability ± immunohistochemistry studies.  Approximately 80% of patients are identified using the Bethesda criteria, although the specificity is low.

Immunohistochemistry and microsatellite instability analysis for Lynch Syndrome

Amsterdam I Criteria

  • ≥3 1st degree relatives with colorectal cancer (CRC)
  • ≥2 generations affected
  • One family member below age 50 years of age
  • Exclude familial adenomatous polyposis

Amsterdam II Criteria

  • As for Amsterdam I except that CRC may be substituted by cancer of endometrium, small bowel, or pelviureter.

Most families with LS, however, do not fulfil the Amsterdam criteria. The Revised Bethesda criteria are another set of diagnostic criteria designed to increase the diagnostic yield of testing for LS [7]. For example, all individuals diagnosed under the age of 50 years should be tested for the molecular features of LS in their tumours.  If molecular testing is diagnostic of LS, it can subsequently determine which families should undergo colonoscopic and other investigations, and to screen other high risk family members. The Revised Bethesda guidelines are designed to streamline the clinical diagnostic pathways used to identify mutation carriers in patients with colorectal cancer who might or might not fulfil the Amsterdam criteria, thus increasing diagnostic yield screening for LS.

The identification of such families with Lynch syndrome involves an extensive diagnostic work up comprising various screening tools combined with genetic and immunohistochemical tests.  Initially the tumour from an affected individual may be tested for features suggestive of this condition by either immunohistochemistry of the mismatch repair proteins and/or DNA microsatellite instability (a hallmark of faulty DNA mismatch repair).  If either of these tests are abnormal, then germline testing may be performed to identify a putative heritable mutation in one of the causative genes.

Patient selection using Amsterdam and revised Bethesda criteria have been applied to clinical pathways in the United Kingdom through the use of national guidelines.  Given the implication of family history and known mortality benefit, the early recognition of Lynch syndrome is highly desirable. There have been concerns over the sensitivity, specificity, and predictive value of already existing guidelines. About 22% of affected individuals do not fulfil either Amsterdam or the Revised Bethesda criteria. As Barnetson et al argues, there might be multiple reasons for this such as small family size, unknown or inadequately taken family history, adoption, and patients without available tumour data [9]. A number of alternative screening models have been developed, such as MMRpredict, PREMM 1,2,6, MMRPro, and MsPath whilst searching for a careening tool that is simple, accurate, and clinically useful for predicting the likelihood of Lynch Syndrome.

Bethesda (revised) Criteria (Umar et al 2003)

  • 1 CRC below age 50 yr
  • Multiple CRC or HNPCC-related cancers
  • CRC with MSI-related histology under 60 years of age
  • CRC or HNPCC-related cancer in ≥1 1st degree relative, < 50 years of age
  • CRC or HNPCC-related cancer in at least two 1st or 2nd degree relatives, any age

MSI-type Histology: Using the revised Bethesda Criteria patients aged 50-60 years should have tumour testing

There is a slight preponderance of right-sided tumours (70% proximal to the splenic flexure) in Lynch Syndrome.  It is a highly penetrant condition which also features extracolonic cancers such as endometrial and gastric cancer.  The adenoma to carcinoma sequence is rapid with interval cancers occurring in 5% of patients despite two-yearly colonoscopic surveillance (Jarvinen, Aarnio et al. 2000).  The tumours are characteristically associated with a local lymphocytic infiltrate and a good prognosis when surgically resected (Jass 2000; Takemoto et al. 2004).

Screening tumours for Lynch Syndrome – is it cost effective?

There are clinical and economic trade-offs when implementing screening protocol on a large scale. As nondirected germline mutation testing for Lynch syndrome is prohibitively expensive at £1000 per gene, MSI and IHC are the screening tests of choice. In view of high costs of testing of all colorectal cancers for MSI or loss or MMR protein, an approach described by Heather Hampel of The Ohio State University, the Revised Bethesda Guidelines were felt to be an appropriate tool to select patients for genetic testing. However, the question remains open: is the “reflex” molecular tumour testing justified clinically and economically? Kastrinos et al, have looked into the popularity of the universal testing across several centres in US. Unsurprisingly, a pessimistic picture emerged showing the low uptake of the concept. The benefits of the universal testing are counterbalanced by practical problems such as an informed consent controversy, practicalities of dealing with the complexity of test results and the resultant implications. The fact that the cost effectiveness of this approach has not been yet validated plays heavily against such approach.

In US, Ramsey et al have carried out a study looking at cost-effectiveness of different strategies for identifying of persons with Lynch syndrome. The average cost per carrier detected using Bethesda guidelines was $15,787, and expanding this strategy to include costs and benefits for first degree relatives greatly improves the cost effectiveness of the program. Expanding the program to first degree relatives leads to savings from intensive screening to exceed the cost of testing.

In Europe, Pinol et al, has carried out a similar study evaluating cost-minimization analysis of identification strategies for MSH2/MLH1-associated Lynch syndrome. Authors concluded that clinical selection of patients using the Revised Bethesda Guidelines followed by either MSI analysis (€11,989 per detected mutation) or IHC (€10,644 per detected mutation) has proved to be more cost effective than performing any of these tests directly (€32,140 and €37,956 per detected mutation, respectively).

Further research has been carried out by Dinh et al in 2010 looking at the cost effectiveness of MMR gene mutations screening, and reached the conclusion that it is comparable to that of already established cancer screening protocols such as colorectal, cervical, and breast cancer screening. Authors argue that primary screening of individuals for MMR gene mutations, starting with the risk assessment between the ages of 25 and 35, followed by genetic testing of those whose risk exceeds 5%, is a strategy that could improve health outcomes in a cost effective manner relative to current practise with the average cost-effectiveness ratio of $26,000 per QALY.

These results echo several European studies, such as that carried out by Pinol V et al, 2005 in Spain, where authors suggest that MSI and IHC testing are equivalent strategies in terms of cost effectiveness when it comes to screening selected patients for MMR mutations

Large bowel surveillance for Lynch syndrome family members and gene carriers

Total colonic surveillance (at least biennial) should commence at age 25 years. Surveillance colonoscopy every 18 months may be appropriate because of the occurrence of interval cancers in some series.  Surveillance should continue to age 7075 years or until co-morbidity makes it clinically inappropriate. If a causative mutation is identified in a relative and the consultand is a non-carrier, surveillance should cease and measures to counter general population risk should be applied.

The effectiveness of colonoscopic surveillance for people with MMR gene mutations and Lynch family members has been examined in retrospective casecontrol comparisons. Screened individuals were compared to control subjects who declined, or did not receive, regular colonoscopy with respect to outcomes of cancer incidence, tumour stage and mortality, or mortality alone. Surveillance appears to provide an average of 7 years of extra life for Lynch syndrome family members.  Thus, available evidence supports regular colonoscopic surveillance as a means of early colorectal cancer detection, leading to mortality reduction as well as reduction in cancer incidence.

Surveillance should consist of total colonoscopy, since the risk of polyps and cancer is high and a substantial proportion of patients have neoplasia restricted to the proximal colon.  Colonoscopy is preferable to flexible sigmoidoscopy combined with barium enema. Because the cancer risk is high, it is not appropriate to accept an incomplete colonoscopy until the next surveillance interval. Incomplete colonoscopy should be followed soon after, or even the same day, by completion CT colonography in centres skilled in providing this technique to a high quality, but repeated radiation exposure should be avoided wherever possible. Repeat full colonoscopy or barium enema remain as options. Chromoendoscopy and narrow wavelength visible light (narrow band) endoscopy may have a place in the detection of small or flat lesions, but there is very limited experience and evidence is restricted to descriptive studies of their use in Lynch syndrome surveillance. Hence, the utility of such techniques requires further assessment and is neither recommended nor discouraged in high risk surveillance, but should not replace conventional endoscopic approaches. Evidence for commencing surveillance at 25 years of age is based on observational data that indicate that the risk increases substantially from age 25 in groups defined by family history and in groups defined by presence of a mutation.

Colorectal resection has a place as prophylaxis and for established cancer in Lynch syndrome family members and/or MMR gene carriers.

Patients who have developed a colorectal malignancy and who come from a Lynch syndrome family, or carry a mutation in an MMR gene, should be counselled and offered a surgical procedure that includes both a cancer control element and prophylaxis to counter future cancer risk. At present there is no evidence to guide decision-making on primary prophylactic surgery for patients who do not yet have cancer.

People with MMR gene mutations or those from Amsterdam positive Lynch syndrome families who have cancer will require surgery unless treatment is palliative. Case series evidence shows that the risk of metachronous colorectal cancer is high following segmental resection (16%), but substantially lower after colectomy and ileorectal anastomosis (3%).  Hence, incorporating a prophylactic element to the cancer resection is appropriate. For patients with proximal tumours, colectomy and ileorectal anastomosis is most relevant, but the retained rectum must be screened because cancer risk in the retained rectum is 3% every 3 years for the first 12 years.

Upper gastrointestinal surveillance for Lynch syndrome family members and/or MMR gene carriers

In families manifesting gastric cancer as part of the phenotype, biennial upper gastrointestinal endoscopy should be considered. The evidence is limited and a pragmatic recommendation is to screen from age 50 since the incidence is very low until that age. Surveillance should continue to age 75 or until the causative mutation in that family has been excluded. This recommendation is based on observations that some Lynch syndrome families have a particular propensity for gastric cancer.  There is as yet no evidence that this reduces mortality.

Other non-polyposis predisposition to colorectal neoplasia

About 15% of sporadic colorectal cancers are also microsatellite unstable and feature loss of protein staining on immunohistochemistry but are not caused by germline mutations in mismatch repair genes.  Often they are acquired sporadic type cancers caused by methylation of MLH1.  These associated with a particular genetic pathway which differs from HNPCC by the presence of BRAF V600E mutations, the absence of β-CATENIN exon 3 mutations and a methylator genotype (Young et al. 2005) (Oliveira et al. 2005).  Recently kindreds demonstrating some inheritance of MLH1 promoter methylation have been identified (Suter et al. 2004; Hitchins, Williams et al. 2005), although the evidence for this inherited epimutation is limited to a few case studies and may be related in imprinting (Chong et al. 2007; Hitchins and Ward 2007).

In addition there are a number of families which fulfil Amsterdam criteria but do not demonstrate microsatellite instability (Dove-Edwin, de Jong et al. 2006).  These families are termed by one group familial colorectal cancer type X (Lindor et al. 2005), and have a lower incidence of colorectal cancer occurring at a later age.  The genetic aetiology is not known for these families.

Approximately 93% of colorectal cancer occurs after the age of 50 years, and thus those young patients who develop cancer are likely to have an inherited or other risk factor such as chronic colitis.  The genetic risk is partially made up by inherited mutations which cause HNPCC.  However, there are likely to be a number of other lower penetrance genes which cause cancer predisposition, many of which may have a recessive form of inheritance and few polyps, and therefore a less clearly identifiable phenotype.



About kjmonahan

Service lead for Family History of Bowel Cancer Clinic


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