Ovarian cancer is responsible for more deaths than any other gynaecological disease, yet it’s known as the ‘silent killer’, due to an absence of symptoms and a devastatingly low survival rate of less than 50 per cent.
Unlike a mammogram for breast cancer, or a cervical screening test for cervical cancer, there is no early detection test for all types of ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer often comes without symptoms, while some women experience bloating, abdominal pain, fatigue or loss of appetite – all of which may be attributed to other conditions. Sadly, this means that ovarian cancer is often not detected until the advanced stages.
But there is hope on the horizon. Dr Andrew Stephens and his team are starting a trial of an early screening test, thanks to generous funding from the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation (OCRF).
The three-year trial will involve around 300 at-risk women who have BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations, to test whether a method developed by Dr Stephens’ team in the laboratory to detect the most common type of ovarian cancer is also able to detect small or pre-cancerous lesions in women.
“Our ‘Active Ratio Test’ measures changes in a key immune process, to give an indication of the presence of a growing tumour,” Dr Stephens said.
“We are excited about the potential for the test to detect the cancer when it is still confined to the ovary and at its most treatable. Ultimately we want to get the test into a routine screening program as a regular health check for women.”
Combatting chemotherapy resistance
For women whose ovarian cancer is detected at a later stage, or those women who experience recurrent disease, new treatments are needed to ensure that they survive for longer and have the best possible quality of life.
Dr Simon Chu and his team are working to improve treatment for a rare hormone-driven type of ovarian cancer, known as granulosa cell tumours (GCT).
Chemotherapy is initially effective at treating ovarian cancer in many women, but there is a high recurrence rate and often these aggressive tumours resurface up to 20 years later.
Dr Chu’s team is working on a ‘double hit’ by combining an anti-diabetic drug with an anti-cancer drug targeting a protein known as XIAP, which drives GCT growth.
“This study could fundamentally change the way we treat GCT through a targeted approach,” Dr Chu said.
“As these two drugs are already in clinical or pre-clinical use for other diseases, we are optimistic we could more quickly move these drugs from a testing phase into the treatment of ovarian cancer.”
OVARIAN CANCER FACTS
Ovarian cancer is the deadliest gynaecological disease.
Every year, more than 1600 Australian women are diagnosed with the disease and it claims the lives of more than 1000.
It is known as ‘silent killer’ because early stage ovarian cancer can have few symptoms.
The disease is often not detected until the advanced stages when it has spread beyond the ovaries.
The five-year survival rate is a devastatingly low 45 per cent.
Dr Jaclyn Pearson
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