About 70 per cent of women who carry a mutated version of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes will develop breast cancer by age 70, according to Dr. Steven Narod, who heads the breast cancer research unit at Women's College Hospital in Toronto.
The mutation often runs in Jewish families, but the provinces currently have restrictions on funding for genetic testing.
Since an accurate saliva test would be cheaper and painless compared with blood tests, Narod hopes provincial health plans might be expanded to screen more women if the project succeeds.
"The ability to do a test from a spit rather than from a blood test really opens up this field to women who traditionally had not been eligible or had not had access to the services," Narod said.
Women who lined up to give saliva at the Toronto hospital this week said they dreaded the possibility of finding out they had the mutation, but also wanted to do everything they could to prevent breast cancer.
Brenda Lazare, one of the women getting the saliva test, said her grandmother died of breast cancer. Lazare admitted she hasn't been having regular mammograms, but vowed to take better care of herself if she tests positive for the mutated gene.
"When you have a child, you want all the knowledge possible so that you can take whatever care you have to," Lazare said.
The lab is screening nearly 2,000 women, and researchers expect about 20 will test positive.
Those who do test positive will be offered counselling, screening tests such as mammograms, drug treatments that are thought to lower the chances of developing the disease, or even preventive surgeries like mastectomies.
The results should be ready in one month. If enough positive cases are found, Narod hopes to open up testing to Jewish women across the country, who could send their saliva samples by mail.
In 2008, an estimated 22,400 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 5,300 will die of it, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.