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Washington University to offer genetic counseling master’s program

Training program for genetic counselors will help meet demand for such professionals

by Julia Evangelou StraitDecember 3, 2020

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Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis is offering a new master’s program in genetic counseling, a field that has been growing in importance as genetic testing becomes more common. Patients are gaining access to more and more information about their genes and genetic risk of disease, and consequently, the demand for trained genetic counselors is on the rise. Such experts help patients understand genetic test results and what it may mean for them and their families.

The first round of applications for the program is due Dec. 15. Classes will begin in fall 2021.

“There is a shortage of genetic counselors nationally, and at the same time, the amount of genetic testing that patients undergo has continued to rise,” said Patricia Dickson, MD, the Centennial Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Division of Medical Genetics and Genomics. “We’re excited to have an accredited genetic counseling program in our state and in St. Louis to help fill that need. It’s going to have tremendous benefits for people in our region who need genetic testing.”

Having a genetic counseling training program at Washington University will support the School of Medicine’s precision medicine initiative, complementing the university’s leadership in genetics and genomics research and helping translate those discoveries into improving patient care.

“With the advent of personalized genetic testing, the need for genetic counselors exploded,” said associate program director Tomi Toler, a certified genetic counselor and an instructor in pediatrics. “Patients need help understanding genetic test results and the impact they can have on their care. Genetic counselors also can help coordinate additional testing for family members, when appropriate.”

Genetic counselors often work with cancer patients, expectant parents and parents of young children who may have been diagnosed with inherited genetic conditions.

“Among cancer patients alone, anyone who has had cancer under the age of 50, anyone who has had ovarian or pancreatic cancer at any time in their lives, and first-degree relatives of people who meet any of these criteria, all need genetic testing for cancer risk,” Dickson said. “That gives you a sense of the giant need for genetic counseling that exists all across the country.

“Patients benefit tremendously from genetic counseling services,” she said. “They have a better understanding of their test results and their risk of certain conditions when they’ve had the opportunity to meet with a genetic counselor. Some of these test results — such as results showing BRCA gene mutations that indicate a high risk of breast cancer — are powerful and can change people’s lives. It’s important that patients have help interpreting them correctly.”

Unlike doctors who diagnose and treat disease, genetic counselors help patients understand inheritance patterns of disease and interpret results of genetic tests so patients can understand their risk of developing cancer, for example, or the risk that a patient’s future pregnancies may come with an inherited, life-threatening condition for the fetuses. Once those risks are understood, a genetic counselor, working with physicians, can help patients navigate their options so they have the information necessary to make the best decisions about further genetic testing, treatments or preventive strategies that may be available, such as lifestyle changes, drug treatments or preventive surgeries that can lower the risk of cancer.

Genetic testing can diagnose rare genetic conditions, but it also is recommended for people with diagnoses of autism, seizures, developmental disabilities, diseases of the heart muscle, and hearing loss, for example, particularly if there is a family history of such conditions. In some cases, genetic testing for these conditions can reveal different or better ways to manage them.

Washington University’s master of science program in genetic counseling has been recognized with new program accreditation status by meeting the strict standards set by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling. It is one of about 50 genetic counseling master’s programs nationwide and the first in Missouri and southern Illinois. To become a certified genetic counselor in the U.S., individuals must graduate from an accredited program and pass the American Board of Genetic Counseling Certification Examination.

During the 21-month program, students will complete courses in subjects such as genetic counseling, human and mammalian genetics, genetics and genomics of disease, research design and ethics, epidemiology, health psychology, and principles of shared decision-making and health literacy. Students also will conduct five clinical rotations in prenatal, pediatric and cancer genetics, and complete a research project to be submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

To apply, students must have earned a bachelor’s degree with at least a 3.0 grade point average and have had some undergraduate coursework in genetics, biochemistry, statistics and psychology. Applicants also should have some exposure to the field of genetic counseling, through shadowing or interviewing genetic counselors. Experience in advocacy and other types of counseling is highly recommended.

In addition to Dickson and Toler, the program’s leaders will be director Rachael Bradshaw, an assistant professor of pediatrics and senior genetic counselor at Saint Louis University and an adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics at Washington University; assistant program director and certified genetic counselor Erin Linnenbringer, PhD, an assistant professor of surgery in public health sciences at Washington University; and medical director Marwan Shinawi, MD, a professor of pediatrics at Washington University.

For more information about Washington University’s Program in Genetic Counseling, including how to apply for the new master’s program, visit their website.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 1,500 faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is a leader in medical research, teaching and patient care, ranking among the top 10 medical schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Julia covers medical news in genomics, cancer, cardiology, developmental biology, otolaryngology, biochemistry & molecular biophysics, and gut microbiome research. In 2022, she won a gold award for excellence in the Robert G. Fenley Writing Awards competition. Given by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the award recognized her coverage of long COVID-19. Before joining Washington University in 2010, she was a freelance writer covering science and medicine. She has a research background with stints in labs focused on bioceramics, human motor control and tissue-engineered heart valves. She is a past Missouri Health Journalism Fellow and a current member of the National Association of Science Writers. She holds a bachelor's degree in engineering science from Iowa State University and a master's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Minnesota.