Paving the way for an endometrial cancer early detection test

New research from Hudson Institute of Medical Research is paving the way for a world-first early detection test for endometrial cancer that could reduce mortality and potentially spare women from an invasive hysterectomy.

Dr Sophea Heng and Professor Guiying Nie

A study led by Professor Guiying Nie and first author Dr Sophea Heng, a Cancer Council Victoria Postdoctoral Cancer Research Fellow, has identified a key protein, dystroglycan (DG) that changes in cells in early stage endometrial cancer development in post-menopausal women. The findings have been published in the journal Oncotarget.

“This discovery may enable us to develop a non-invasive early screening test for endometrial cancer, which would greatly reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with the disease,” Prof Nie says.

Endometrial cancer has no obvious symptoms in pre-menopausal women, and post-menopausal women often present with vaginal bleeding, a sign that the disease has already taken hold.

Endometrial cancer

  • Endometrial cancer is one of the most common gynaecological cancers diagnosed in Australian women.
  • In 2017, it’s predicted there will be 2861 new cases of endometrial cancer and 453 deaths from endometrial cancer in Australia.
  • There is currently no early detection test for endometrial cancer
  • Endometrial cancer mostly affects post-menopausal women, but rates in pre-menopausal women are rising.

Hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) is the most effective treatment option, but it’s highly invasive and the least preferred option for pre-menopausal women who wish to preserve their fertility.

In collaboration with Dr Jemma Evans, Professor Lois Salamonsen (Hudson Institute) and Professor Thomas Jobling (Epworth Research Institute), Prof Nie and Dr Heng’s work could herald an early detection test for endometrial cancer.

The team found that dystroglycan, a cell surface protein, helps to bind cells together in the uterus. When it is not present, the tight junction of the cells is reduced – a key indicator of early stage endometrial cancer development.

“Dystroglycan is shed from the cell surface during early endometrial cancer development and is released into the uterine cavity where it ‘floats’ and could potentially be detected for early diagnosis,” Prof Nie says.

However, large cohort studies would be required to monitor levels of dystroglycan before a test could be rolled out.

“Endometrial cancer is the fifth most commonly diagnosed cancer and one of the most common gynaecological cancers in women. Development of an early detection test would vastly improve the quality of life for women,” Prof Nie says.

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