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UTSW to launch North Texas’ only Master of Science in Genetic Counseling program in 2024

Genetics Counseling at UTSW
Theodora Ross, M.D., Ph.D. (left), and genetics counselor Jacqueline Mersch, M.S., go over test results.

UT Southwestern’s School of Health Professions will roll out a new Master of Science in Genetic Counseling program next year, with the application process now open.

The need for genetic counselors is growing. UTSW and affiliated Children’s Medical Center Dallas already offer genetic counseling to adults concerned they carry a genetic risk for breast cancer or other diseases, as well as to prospective parents interested in finding out if their babies will inherit certain conditions. Currently, UT Southwestern and Children’s genetics teams offer more than 8,500 genetic counseling consultations a year.

The Genetic Counseling Program Leadership Team Includes, from left: Cheyla Clark, Director of Outreach and Engagement; Samantha Greenberg, Program Director; Caitlin Mauer, Assistant Program Director; and John Zimmerman, Director of Fieldwork.

The new UTSW educational program will increase the pool of Texas genetic counselors, a significant need as the rate of genetic testing grows.

“With the ongoing movement toward personalized medicine, we envisioned the demand for more highly trained genetic counselors to support this endeavor,” said Jon Williamson, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Health Professions.

Accepting applications through Dec. 15, it will be the only such master’s program in North Texas when it opens, said Samantha Greenberg, M.S., M.P.H., CGC, the program’s Director and an Assistant Professor in the School of Health Professions. Applicants must hold a bachelor’s degree.

Students will complete four semesters in addition to summer fieldwork to earn the master’s degree and prepare to sit for the exam for the certified genetic counselor (CGC) credential.

Texas is one of six states with the highest employment of genetic counselors, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, yet there has been no training program in North Texas for many years, said Ms. Greenberg.

“As the core academic health center here in DFW, UT Southwestern can stand out as the preferred destination for comprehensive genetic and personalized medical care,” she added. “Genetic counselors are key members of that care team, facilitating the understanding of and adaptation to complex medical conditions.”

Director of Outreach and Engagement Cheyla Clark (right) discusses coursework with School of Health Professions students Yosanly Cornelio (left) and Robyn Wei.

The 21-month program will admit six students in fall 2024, with plans to expand to 10 students per year over three years.

Cancer is one disease area where patients are often tested for a genetic predisposition – especially in the case of ovarian, pancreatic, breast, uterine, prostate, and colon cancers, Ms. Greenberg said. Inherited mutations are involved in about 5% to 10% of all cancers, with higher percentages of inherited conditions identified in some types of cancer.

Those who find they have a genetic likelihood to get cancer can take preventive measures. Women with a genetic change in BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes or a predisposition for ovarian cancer, for example, may choose to have preventive removal of their ovaries, she said.

Genetic counselors provide care across reproductive, pediatric, and adult settings. Those who suspect a personal or family history of Huntington’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or various eye conditions might also choose to see a genetic counselor. During pregnancy, parents may test for Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, or trisomy 13 and 18 conditions, which result from extra chromosomes. Historically, parents who wanted to test their infant before birth had to decide on more invasive testing such as amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling (CVS). Now, Ms. Greenberg said, mothers can provide a sample of their own blood, which has been found to have some of the baby’s blood as well, and that can be tested for abnormalities as the first line of testing in pregnancy.

Genetic testing is often covered by insurance and, even when not, typically costs $250 or less, Ms. Greenberg informed.

“Testing is much more affordable than it used to be,” she said. “Patients used to pay thousands of dollars.”

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