A team from the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) in Newcastle, NSW said after three years of work it had been able to identify ovarian cancer lesions before they could be detected by traditional methods such as MRIs and ultrasounds.
The team, which includes researchers from the University of Newcastle and Hunter New England Health, has also identified the proteins responsible for the growth of the lesions.
Most ovarian cancer cases are detected at a late stage when the survival rate is around 40 per cent, but when detected early the survival rate is around 90 per cent.
“If you look in the last 20 years, the five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer has not changed. It’s quite dismal,” lead researcher Pradeep Tanwar said.
The discovery relates to the Wnt protein — the researchers detected elevated levels of the protein being secreted by ovarian lesions.
“We knew that the lesions were present, but what we are able to define here is why the lesions are developed in the first place,” Dr Tanwar said.
“We are able to show there are stem cells which are required for the maintenance of a tube which connects the ovary to the uterus.
“Those stem cells are normally able to give rise to two cell types which are required for normal function, but when the mutation occurs, or when the proteins are overproduced, then that cell is unable to give rise to daughter cells and keep cells renewing, leading to growth of these lesions.”
The lesions cannot be detected through traditional methods.
“We have been trying to understand how ovarian cancer starts and progresses to later stages, and what we were able to define is how the earliest possible ovarian cancer lesions are developed and the proteins which are responsible for the growth of these lesions,” Dr Tanwar said.
The next step is to find a way to detect the proteins in menses, vaginal secretions or through a blood test.
“Somehow what we want to do is develop a biomarker or a test so that we can diagnose ovarian cancer at the very early stages,” Dr Tanwar said.
“So what will happen is that if you’re able to do that, then you can simply go to hospital and get your ovaries or fallopian tubes or the whole reproductive track removed.
Any test could also have implications for women who are BRCA1/2 positive — the genes implicated in breast cancer.
Such women have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer, and the test could be used to keep an eye on the level of Wnt protein and make decisions about surgical risk reduction without affecting child-bearing options.
The most recent discovery is part of a range of work being done to improve survival outcomes for ovarian cancer patients.
A different research team is working to improve the treatment for ovarian cancer.
Dr Tanwar has also uncovered a link between the contraceptive pill and reducing the risk of ovarian cancer.
“We have a really nice group of people working together in a team, and HMRI has provided us a good platform with good leaders … when there’s good leaders, good discoveries occur,” Dr Tanwar said.
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